Tribute: Chadwick Boseman

Posted on August 30, 2020 at 9:42 pm

Copyright 2018 Disney
The devastating loss of Chadwick Boseman, who has died of colon cancer at just 43 years old, is almost incomprehensible. The tributes to him from his colleagues and fans struggle to capture his grace, his talent, and his dedication. May his memory be a blessing.

I appeared on KUSI to talk about my two interviews with Boseman and what his legacy will be.

And I shared more about those memories on rogerebert.com, a supplement to the beautiful commentary from Odie Henderson.

My interview with Boseman about “Marshall.” My interview with him about “42.”

The tribute from “Black Panther” writer/director Ryan Coogler is deeply moving:

I inherited Marvel and the Russo Brothers’ casting choice of T’Challa. It is something that I will forever be grateful for. The first time I saw Chad’s performance as T’Challa, it was in an unfinished cut of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. I was deciding whether or not directing BLACK PANTHER was the right choice for me. I’ll never forget, sitting in an editorial suite on the Disney Lot and watching his scenes. His first with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, then, with the South African cinema titan, John Kani as T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to make this movie. After Scarlett’s character leaves them, Chad and John began conversing in a language I had never heard before. It sounded familiar, full of the same clicks and smacks that young black children would make in the States. The same clicks that we would often be chided for being disrespectful or improper. But, it had a musicality to it that felt ancient, powerful, and African.

In my meeting after watching the film, I asked Nate Moore, one of the producers of the film, about the language. “Did you guys make it up?” Nate replied, “that’s Xhosa, John Kani’s native language. He and Chad decided to do the scene like that on set, and we rolled with it.” I thought to myself. “He just learned lines in another language, that day?” I couldn’t conceive how difficult that must have been, and even though I hadn’t met Chad, I was already in awe of his capacity as actor.

I learned later that there was much conversation over how T’Challa would sound in the film. The decision to have Xhosa be the official language of Wakanda was solidified by Chad, a native of South Carolina, because he was able to learn his lines in Xhosa, there on the spot. He also advocated for his character to speak with an African accent, so that he could present T’Challa to audiences as an African king, whose dialect had not been conquered by the West.

I finally met Chad in person in early 2016, once I signed onto the film. He snuck past journalists that were congregated for a press junket I was doing for CREED, and met with me in the green room. We talked about our lives, my time playing football in college, and his time at Howard studying to be a director, about our collective vision for T’Challa and Wakanda. We spoke about the irony of how his former Howard classmate Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing T’Challa’s current arc with Marvel Comics. And how Chad knew Howard student Prince Jones, who’s murder by a police officer inspired Coates’ memoir Between The World and Me.

I noticed then that Chad was an anomaly. He was calm. Assured. Constantly studying. But also kind, comforting, had the warmest laugh in the world, and eyes that seen much beyond his years, but could still sparkle like a child seeing something for the first time.

That was the first of many conversations. He was a special person. We would often speak about heritage and what it means to be African. When preparing for the film, he would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate. “They not ready for this, what we are doing…” “This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us… and bigger!” He would say this to me while we were struggling to finish a dramatic scene, stretching into double overtime. Or while he was covered in body paint, doing his own stunts. Or crashing into frigid water, and foam landing pads. I would nod and smile, but I didn’t believe him. I had no idea if the film would work. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. But I look back and realize that Chad knew something we all didn’t. He was playing the long game. All while putting in the work. And work he did.

He would come to auditions for supporting roles, which is not common for lead actors in big budget movies. He was there for several M’Baku auditions. In Winston Duke’s, he turned a chemistry read into a wrestling match. Winston broke his bracelet. In Letitia Wright’s audition for Shuri, she pierced his royal poise with her signature humor, and would bring about a smile to T’Challa’s face that was 100% Chad.

While filming the movie, we would meet at the office or at my rental home in Atlanta, to discuss lines and different ways to add depth to each scene. We talked costumes, military practices. He said to me “Wakandans have to dance during the coronations. If they just stand there with spears, what separates them from Romans?” In early drafts of the script. Eric Killmonger’s character would ask T’Challa to be buried in Wakanda. Chad challenged that and asked, what if Killmonger asked to be buried somewhere else?

Chad deeply valued his privacy, and I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness. After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us.

I haven’t grieved a loss this acute before. I spent the last year preparing, imagining and writing words for him to say, that we weren’t destined to see. It leaves me broken knowing that I won’t be able to watch another close-up of him in the monitor again or walk up to him and ask for another take.

It hurts more to know that we can’t have another conversation, or facetime, or text message exchange. He would send vegetarian recipes and eating regimens for my family and me to follow during the pandemic. He would check in on me and my loved ones, even as he dealt with the scourge of cancer.

In African cultures we often refer to loved ones that have passed on as ancestors. Sometimes you are genetically related. Sometimes you are not. I had the privilege of directing scenes of Chad’s character, T’Challa, communicating with the ancestors of Wakanda. We were in Atlanta, in an abandoned warehouse, with bluescreens, and massive movie lights, but Chad’s performance made it feel real. I think it was because from the time that I met him, the ancestors spoke through him. It’s no secret to me now how he was able to skillfully portray some of our most notable ones. I had no doubt that he would live on and continue to bless us with more. But it is with a heavy heart and a sense of deep gratitude to have ever been in his presence, that I have to reckon with the fact that Chad is an ancestor now. And I know that he will watch over us, until we meet again.

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Tribute: Ennio Morricone

Posted on July 6, 2020 at 4:18 pm

The great movie composter Ennio Morricone has died at the age of 91. Adam Bernstein’s superb obituary in the Washington Post captures not only what he did but why it sounded so gorgeously perfect.

Mr. Morricone was a boldly adventurous composer who saw himself as a full partner in telling stories on-screen. He thrived with directors known for their visual excess, including Tarantino, Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma.

But Mr. Morricone, whose scores could be gritty, unsettling or exquisitely gentle, was impossible to categorize. His portfolio seemed to span every conceivable mainstream genre, including comedy, drama, romance, horror, political satire and historical epic.

Some examples:

And to understand better the embrace of film and score, see this very knowledgeable essay by Bilge Ebiri about the best pieces as they were used within the context of individual scenes in the films themselves. For example:

Though much of A Fistful of Dollars’ score is quite spare, for the final showdown, Morricone gives us something altogether more melodic and traditional. This ornate trumpet dirge popped up earlier in the film as well, but here, it fits perfectly — as the clouds of dynamite smoke and dust blow away to reveal Clint Eastwood’s character, seemingly back from the dead to exact retribution on Ramon Rojo and his gang. This has become established as one of Morricone’s signature pieces, which is somewhat ironic, as it’s also an homage to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Howard Hawks’s John Wayne Western Rio Bravo.

Morricone was a giant in the history of film. May his memory be a blessing.

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Tribute: Carl Reiner

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 2:06 pm

I had the privilege of writing a tribute to one of my all-time favorites, Carl Reiner for rogerebert.com. He was a legend in every possible form of entertainment, as a writer, actor, showrunner, director, and resident wit on social media. From his time in the legendary writers’ room of “Your Show of Shows” alongside Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, and his lifetime best friend Mel Brooks to his 2020 appearance in Pixar’s “Forky Asks a Question” series, his mentorship to newcomers Mary Tyler Moore, Steve Martin, Dick Van Dyke, and many others, his affectionate skewering of popular culture, he was a major force in the culture of more than half a century.

I love this affectionate remembrance from TCM.

Here is one of my favorite moments from what Reiner said was his best creation, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

May his memory be a blessing.

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Tribute: Peter Fonda

Posted on August 23, 2019 at 6:18 am

Copyright 1969 Pando Company

We mourn the loss of Peter Fonda, a fine actor whose work was overshadowed by his Oscar-winning father, Henry Fonda, and sister, Jane Fonda. He will be best remembered for “Easy Rider,” a film that turned Hollywood upside down in the late 60’s with its fiercely independent spirit on and off-screen.

For rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz writes:

From the start of his stardom, the actor, director, filmmaker, producer, activist, and father of actress Bridget Fonda (“Jackie Brown,” “Point of No Return”) had a complicated vision of his time and country. It endured as he aged and started playing roles that commented on his youthful stardom. His signature works are “The Wild Angels,” “Easy Rider,”, “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,” “The Hired Hand,” “Ulee’s Gold,” “The Limey,” “Escape from L.A.,” and “Ghost Rider.” All were animated by words and phrases that might pop into the heads of Peter Fonda fans when they thought about his career: motorcycles, counterculture, hippies, drugs, alienation, chaos, romanticism, regret, philosophical reflection, world-weariness, hope, and fathers and sons.

It was just six years earlier that he played bland Sandra Dee’s bland love interest in the ultra-bland “Tammy and the Doctor.”

Copyright Universal Studios 1963

But then, the same year that the film of the Woodstock festival came to theaters, he co-wrote, produced, and starred in the film that was so transformative it led the title of one of the best books ever written about Hollywood history. As Variety wrote, the film “shook up Hollywood and revolutionized the country’s sense of itself….He was the youth-culture version of an icon, rebel son of the archetypal patriarch, and it meant something seismic to see a figure like this — the descendant of American royalty, who could have gone the Ivy League route, or else enlisted in Vietnam — reject his father’s relatively conservative values.” The film cost just $400,000 but made $60 million. Hollywood might not have understood the counterculture, but it understood box office economics.

Copyright 1997 Orion Pictures
In 1997, he played the title role in “Ulee’s Gold.” Director Victor Nunez remembered, “When we started shooting, he was an inspiration on the set. He did a lot of scenes with real, swarming bees. But Peter never got stung. Which says something about him as an actor — he could even charm the bees.”

May his memory be a blessing.

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Tribute: Russi Taylor

Posted on July 31, 2019 at 9:54 am

We mourn the loss of sweet-voiced, sweet-spirited Russi Taylor, who was the voice of Minnie Mouse and many other animated characters. Michael Cavna has a lovely tribute to her in the Washington Post, and to her made-for-a-movie love story with — wait for it — the guy who voiced Mickey. They met when she was cast as Minnie in 1986, and fell in love.

She did other characters as well.

“When they were together, like Laurel and Hardy, they were just meant to be together as a team — and as a lifelong team,” Farmer said. “If you looked in Webster’s and saw the word ‘marriage,’ it should have a picture of Wayne and Russi.

“They were just so in love and so wonderful together. I think that love came through in their performances, and gave it a little something extra.”

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