THE FIRST time I saw Chadwick Boseman in person was at the Black Panther London premiere in 2018.
Packed into a tight media line on a rainy evening at Hammersmith Apollo, I was excited at the chance to speak with the cast of the highly anticipated film and, most importantly, the star at the centre of it all.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to speak with him at that premiere and ask my burning questions surrounding his ascent to film stardom, as the lead actor in what later became one of Marvel’s most successful blockbusters of all time. But, never one to fear, I felt that the opportunity would arise once again.
A year-and-a-half later and here we are, sitting opposite one another in the swanky Corinthia Hotel discussing his latest movie 21 Bridges. The flick, directed by Brian Kirk (Luther, Game of Thrones) and produced by Avengers directing duo Anthony and Joseph Russo, follows the story of NYPD detective Andre Davis [Chadwick Boseman] who leads a citywide manhunt for a pair of cop killers and undergoes an intense search which leads to the closure of 21 bridges into and out of Manhattan to prevent any entry or exit from the island.
The one-hour-43-minute film makes for a gripping watch, combining explosive action-packed moments, twists and thrills, richly detailed characters and a layered social commentary – elements that Boseman could see when he was first approached about the film.
“The first thing that drew me to the film was the Russo Brothers, who I worked with on Avengers,” says Boseman. “They came to me at the premiere of Infinity War and said they have this script that they felt I was perfect for.
“At the time, the story wasn’t perfect and the character wasn’t exactly where I wanted it to be, but that was an opportunity to change it. I met Brian [Kirk], we talked about how we could collaborate, and I basically signed up before the rewrite of the script was done, just because I saw the opportunities there.”
And Boseman took the opportunity to make a significant input on the character as he served both as lead actor and producer. “My initial thought of the character was that I felt he was too controlled by the politics of the city,” says the 41-year-old actor.
“So it changed into what we see in the movie – this guy who has an amazing skill set and has a sense of balancing vengeance and justice because of what he’s gone through with losing his father at a young age.
“He’s the person that’s going to get closer to the evil or to the person who inflicts pain. That’s why he’s misunderstood, and all of that stuff we found in the writing and character development.”
To tackle the new and improved Andre Davis, Boseman undertook training with NYPD officers, going on rides across the city and learning how to look and feel like a cop – an experience which he said slightly altered his perspective on the police.
“That experience adjusted my perspective, but it didn’t completely change it,” added Boseman. I have my social and political beliefs about how cops interact with people of colour and that hasn’t necessarily changed, but I feel like I understand what a police officer goes through on a day-to-day basis.”
The South Carolina native revealed one particular instance that altered his point of view.
“We watched a police shoot- out and, while I can’t say I sympathise or I understand their perspective, I do understand they’re looking through the focus of a gun,” details Boseman.
“If something happens over there, I don’t look away from the focus of the gun, I turn the focus of the gun to something that’s happening over there and I may make a mistake when I do that.
“They’re [the police] trained to look through that focus and not to look away from the focus. So I understand how mistakes are made and I understand how sometimes their lives are saved because they do that as well.
“It means to me that a lot of thought and personal development has to happen before you put that gun up.”
Taking on the role of US law enforcement must come with moral complexities as a black man living in America today. Those difficulties don’t seem lost on Boseman given the current socio-political climate and how it’s incorporated into the film as Davis debates siding with his boys in blue who want vengeance while sticking to the code and uncovering the truth.
“It’s funny, because in the film we’re restricted by time and space and have a deadline to catch these killers,” recalls Boseman. “And so because of that restricted time a lot of stuff is missed, questions that should be asked don’t get asked and lead us down this dangerous path.”
21 Bridges makes for an easy and enjoyable watch and part of its appeal is the ability to see a black man lead a role that isn’t centred solely on his race but is merely a good ol’ New York crime story with a black male lead.
During our tete-a-tete, I asked Boseman about the significance of a previous interview he did in 2015 while promoting Gods of Egypt – a 2016 fantasy film which was criticised for white- washing Egyptian history while Boseman took on the only black role of Throth, the God of Wisdom.
In the interview, Boseman said “people don’t make $140m movies with black and brown people” – a statement which is now pretty ironic after the LA resident starred in arguably the biggest black-led film with a multi-million dollar budget.
I asked whether he’s hopeful for the future of black-led cinema being made on such a massive scale, to which he replied that he is hopeful for black stories to be told to the masses at “any scale”.
“I love the fact that it’s been done so it can be done again, but sometimes you don’t need all that to have success. It’s all promising, and I’m not saying that we are where we need to be in terms of the industry changing, but I see great opportunities for a lot of my colleagues,” concludes Boseman.
“I’m enjoying watching what’s happening and being a part of it.”