Many of the tributes pouring in for Chadwick Boseman, who died last week at age 43 after a private battle with colon cancer, have emphasized his grace. “Black Panther” made Boseman one of the world’s preeminent movie stars, but those who knew him say he remained loyal, humble and philanthropic, leaving behind a legacy defined by forward-thinking generosity.
Aakomon Jones witnessed Boseman’s ascent firsthand. A veteran choreographer who has worked with Usher, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, Jones taught Boseman — an untrained dancer — how to capture James Brown’s famous moves for the under-appreciated 2014 biopic “Get On Up.” They had three short months to achieve a physicality that takes some performers years to perfect. Along the way, Jones found himself learning as much from Boseman’s dedication as Boseman did from Jones’ techniques. When the actor went on to make “Black Panther” a few years later, he asked Marvel to hire Jones to choreograph the spirited scene set at Warrior Falls, Wakanda’s king-making epicenter.
In the wake of Boseman’s death, I asked Jones to reflect on their work together, from suggesting the actor do all of his own dancing in “Get On Up” to observing the spiritual journey that accompanied his superhero renown. What resulted was a conversation about a man who exuded dignity.
Let’s start with how “Get On Up” entered your life and your initial thoughts about working on a project that required you to capture someone as specific as James Brown.
Mick Jagger was one of the executive producers. I had worked with him on a music video before. By the time I was involved, [the producers] were considering a number of actors, but they were really more interested in Chadwick, so they brought me in to work with him on his screen test. I didn’t rehearse with him prior. It was literally that morning. I just tried to get him worked up enough for his screen test. We connected really quickly on that. He got the role and we got straight to rehearsals. I’m a student of James Brown. A lot of roads lead back to James Brown in terms of stage energy.
I promise you ― and I remember it as though it was yesterday ― from day one of our rehearsals with Chadwick, I was absolutely convinced that he was going to be able to pull this off. And it wasn’t because he walked in day one already having it. He’s 6 feet tall [and] thin, trying to play this guy who was short, bowlegged and 5’7” ― a little running-back type of guy. So the physicality already had us at a disadvantage, but Chadwick had impressed upon me a work ethic and a passion for the arts that had me reassured that this is going to work because this guy is showing up to work before I am. He’s dancing as long as I can dance, and I think I can go for hours and hours. He can go for a couple more.
At that point, you were accustomed to working with experienced dancers, having choreographed for folks like Usher and Madonna. Chadwick was not a dancer. So what did it take for both of you to feel ready and comfortable to carry the movie?
For me, it was just time. That’s all I would just ask for. We’re trying to pack 30 years of dance experience into three months. That’s crazy to think of, but that’s what we’re all charged with. Chadwick was so invested beyond the moves because there’s the physical, technical aspect of it and then there’s also the “How do I connect this to the character?” That was always the angle with which Chadwick would approach our rehearsals. In the moment that I would force him to sit down and take a break and have some water, I would step away and turn right back around and he’s reading another chapter in some James Brown biography that he had read because he remembered something that he connected to the dance we were doing.
Do you have a specific example of an emotional trigger point from either James Brown’s life or the way Chadwick related to James Brown that directly informed some of the choreography?
Yes, one thing in particular. Chadwick is a martial artist ― well before “Black Panther,” he was always practicing martial arts ― and very athletic. I always reference dancers as being athletes because you literally have to be that. But before James Brown became the James Brown we all know and love, he was a boxer, and Chadwick picked up on that. If you look at James Brown in that context, you see how he would ball his fist or how he would work his footwork or how he would dance holding up a guard, in a boxing stance. I would watch Chadwick explain it to me and do it better than I was trying to teach it to him.
How ready was he by the time cameras were rolling?
Were we prepared on that first shoot date? Yes. He was confident. I was confident in him. He was ready. From the moment we started principal photography, there may have been one and a half numbers that we had yet to design that he would have to find time to learn. And number one on the call sheet, it’s hard to get access to them after we start shooting. But he was so good at that point, to where the process and teaching him something new was like lightning speed because he was such a well-oiled machine with regards to being James Brown. So, a new number? Easy. We can knock it out quick because he had done the work. My relationship with him would be just to keep him anchored. And to be able to share the stage in a couple of those numbers [as singer Bobby Bennett], that meant the world to me.
In many movies where actors play dancers, the camerawork is designed so we never see the person’s full body and can never know there’s a double doing most of it. “Get On Up” is different. Those strategic cuts don’t exist, so we know that Chadwick is doing all of his own work. Was that the plan all along?
That was not the thought going in. The thought from producers was, “We need to discuss ways to double Chad.” That kind of was everyone’s anticipation because that’s what we do [in movies]: We protect the artists with regards to making sure they come across on-screen. I personally was anti that, but I wasn’t going to speak on that until I was certain that we were going to be able to pull this off. So day one in rehearsal, I was like, “Oh no, we’re not doing any body doubles. Nope.” And he was down for it. He felt and he understood — and I’ll say this because I’ve heard him say it in an interview, and I say this with the utmost humility — my level of confidence in him. Because if you’re not a professional dancer and you’re now playing James Brown, what an undertaking. But he did it. As one of the accessories to that journey, it made me want to work that much harder.
What was the dance move that was the hardest to work through and achieve the results that both of you wanted?
There’s so much that you have to do to try to perform like James Brown, but the toughest thing for him physically was being able to drop down into that split and come right back up. I mean, he’s blessed to be 6 feet. That’s a blessing, unless you’re trying to do that. We would work on that, and he understood the muscle groups that were required so he could train on those. Those hamstrings and that inner leg strength to draw your body back up off of the floor, that’s tough. And you’re in dress shoes. That was the toughest thing physically for him to do at that rate of speed in the middle of a performance when you’re already fatigued and sweating and singing.
What do you remember about seeing the film for the first time and how you and Chadwick felt about it?
The experience was a dream experience. I’ll tell you this specific memory. Tate [Taylor, the director] invited Chadwick and I to his offices to watch his first edit and get our feedback. So it was just three of us sitting in the room. We looked at it and he had his notes, but it was really beautiful and awesome to sit with the two of them and watch that first draft. After we talked about it, we started talking about what our next projects were. And in that conversation, Chadwick said, “I have some meetings with Marvel coming up.” And they didn’t tell him what those meetings were for. Being comic book heads, we’re sitting there speculating on, “Who is it? I think I know.” It’s just fun for me to think back to that day, as we watched “Get On Up” for the first time and he was on his way to have these meetings, not knowing what they were for. Years later, here we are.
You were catching him on that last wave before he entered the huge, global stardom that comes with being part of that franchise.
Absolutely, and Marvel couldn’t have chosen a better guy for that. All the things that “Black Panther” role embodies, he was really that beforehand. He was always about upward mobility. He was about the underdog. He was about taking his artistry seriously, and he was forever a student.
You did some work on “Black Panther.” How did that come about?
I was there doing “Pitch Perfect 3” in Atlanta [where Marvel movies also shoot] and so we were able to cross paths a couple of times: “Oh, I’m having a barbecue, come through,” or “Oh, you’re in town? Let’s kick it.” We would hang out. But then there were the scenes [in “Black Panther”] where there was an opportunity for dance. That’s one thing that I always said about Chadwick: He used his leverage at every stage of his career to help someone else, to bring someone else on. I personally heard him have conversations with producers about the importance of choreography and dance. Choreographers are oftentimes an anomaly in the industry, so we have to fight to get that appreciation because you won’t see one of us on set every day.
So he brought you on for “Black Panther”?
He brought me on for “Black Panther.” In African tradition, a lot of tribes would have a war dance. In Asian martial arts, you call it a kata. So I would work with him on some of that. For the Warrior Falls scene where they choose the new king, you can have an opportunity to challenge the king. I worked on all the tribes and their movements, driving on the boats, up in the waterfall, what have you.
They weren’t looking for a choreographer to help with that, but Chadwick expressed the importance of it. He called on me, and you got to know I came running top-speed. It was, of course, Marvel’s “Black Panther.” Who doesn’t want to be a part of that? But I’m not lying to you: My reasoning for not thinking twice was because he called. That meant the world to me that he put his neck on the line even in a small way. I can’t thank him enough for that.
You mentioned what it was like for him to be number one on the call sheet during “Get On Up,” so I can only imagine what it was like to be number one on “Black Panther,” which was budgeted around $200 million. How did the machinery of that franchise and the size of the production change the nature of what you guys were doing together?
Well, the nature of what was required meant that I didn’t need as much time with him. But in terms of the scale, when you got to Chadwick, you didn’t feel the scale. It still felt small and personal, in a good way. He has a theatrical background, so he just made it seem like, “Hey, I know you, we cool. I’m so glad you’re here. Hey, check this out. What do you think about this or that?” He’s immediately engaging you in a way that makes you forget this is the biggest, craziest, most amazing thing you would ever want to be involved in.
I don’t think anybody at the time could have predicted that “Black Panther” would cross a billion dollars, even though there was a lot of enthusiasm around the movie. Still, he had to know that it would vault him into this upper echelon of fame and also that the movie would mean a lot to a lot of people. I’m curious whether you saw that in him and whether he was readying himself for that change in his life.
Absolutely, because he would use his leverage in the way that he did. He was already in the culture of helping others and bringing others with him: “If I’m about to skyrocket into the stratosphere, I’m not going alone just to make new friends when I get there. No, I want those others who were with me to experience that.” He was very well-prepared from a spiritual standpoint. The movie touched upon the importance of staying connected to ancestors. He already had that language. He would bring a djembe drum to rehearsals for “Get On Up.” We were doing soul music in the ’60s, but that’s the rhythms that really got him going in the morning.
It’s poetic that he was chosen for [the Black Panther role] because he was more than deserving. He’s very kinglike, and not king like “I rule over,” but “I’m the king who brings the community, and I lead from that perspective.” I can’t say enough on that. On day one of our rehearsal for “Get On Up,” he told me, “Man, as a kid growing up, I always wanted to be in an action movie, and I’m fortunate enough to play in all these biopics when I really got into acting to one day be in an action movie.” And then fast-forward, you are the greatest action character that we know right now. I think he handled that level of success with such grace and responsibility because he always felt responsible and respectful of what was happening. Didn’t take any of it for granted. That’s one thing that I know for a fact.
Is there a defining anecdote or memory about Chadwick that I haven’t already prompted that sticks out to you?
Sometimes it’s the small things that let you know the character of a person. There have been two times that I’ve been out in public where he has gone out of his way to say hello. This is after the major success of “Black Panther.” One of them was at the airport. I was coming in, he was coming out. Another time, we were literally on the street. He was just always sending love and sending vibes and checking in on you. I’m like, there must be 10,000 people in your life every day, but you would still take time to reach out to people and to connect with them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.