By Joanna Charnas
Chadwick Boseman, star of the megahit, Black Panther, recently died at age forty-three from colon cancer. Numerous tributes on social medial immediately appeared after his death lauding his achievements as an actor. Reading them I remembered what I’ve long believed – that art gives meaning to our lives, and sometimes saves lives. I’d seen many of Chadwick Boseman’s films, including the ones he made before he became a social phenom: 42, Get on UP, and Marshall. He was great in all of his roles.
Movies have been a refuge for me since I was eleven years old, when both of my divorced parents began taking me to R rated films. Some of the movies, like Shaft, and The Last Picture Show, were completely age inappropriate. I don’t think they did me any harm. Instead, I fell in love with film. In adolescence I spent most of my free time in art houses watching classic movies. I saw most of the new and popular releases too. My mother suffered from untreated Bipolar Disorder. Movie theaters became a safe place for me to escape my chaotic home life.
In addition, I was severely dyslexic. I had difficulty seeing straight, and struggled to hear more than one sound at a time. Sitting in a dark space with no visual or auditory distractions was peaceful for me. I felt safe. I could relax and expand my world in a movie theater.
Last summer I saw Blinded by the Light, a film in which the protagonist finds validation and meaning from listening to Bruce Springsteen’s music. As the credits rolled, I discovered that my movie buddy was sobbing. She was deeply embarrassed, but explained that Springsteen had the same effect on her life as the character in the film. I’d heard this before. In my twenties, I’d met someone who disclosed to me that listening to Springsteen saved his life. I told my friend I understood, and that my life would be completely different without my weekly a movie habit.
Binge watching films and television has become both the norm and a cultural joke during the pandemic. I think that we need to take a step back from the humor to examine this trend. Right now, everyone is stressed, even on our best days. There’s no avoiding what Covid 19 has done to our lives. Escaping into a good movie or television series seems like a healthy way to cope. I’ve revisited many of my favorite films. They have calmed and comforted me.
Art not only save lives for consumers; it sometimes provides salvation for artists. Early this summer, MSI Press published my fourth book, A Movie Lover’s Search for Romance. It was a dream come true. When I turned fifty-three, I felt like I was on a long, slow slide to sixty. I needed to give myself new purpose and meaning. That summer was the worst one of my life. At a low point I decided to get the rough drafts of my manuscripts out of a drawer and try to find a publisher. Now at sixty, I can’t imagine what the last seven years would have been like if I hadn’t made that decision. Without my literary endeavors, I may have sunk into despair.
In 1995 I saw the film Crumb, about the artist Robert Crumb, who is most famous for his “Keep on Trucking” cartoons. Crumb was wildly eccentric. His eccentricities were tolerated because of his talent and accomplishments. The film also profiled his two brothers, both of whom were also artists. However, they had not enjoyed their brother’s success and were struggling with mental illness, addiction, and poverty. At the end of the film, we learn that one of Crumb’s brothers killed himself. I wondered, watching the movie, what Crumb’s life would have been like without his commercial and popular success. Clearly, his artistic achievements had saved his from the challenges his brothers faced.
Recently I’ve been doing publicity for A Movie Lover’s Search for Romance. During interviews I explain that the book is about my search for romantic love and also about my five-decade long love affair with the movies. Movies are a central part of my life. They have always given me respite, joy, and intellectual stimulation. I understand the outpouring of grief for Chadwick Boseman and share it. We all need art. It illuminates and often gives meaning to our lives. The untimely death of this fine actor reminds us just how important it is.