‘Marshall’ turns Thurgood into the contemporary hero Americans want, but ignores the one he was Not enough of the real NAACP lawyer shows up in Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal

Marshall, the new film from director Reginald Hudlin about the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, comes from a production company called Super Hero Films.

It’s an appropriate moniker, given that the star of Marshall is Chadwick Boseman — or, as he’s sure to be known after February, Black Panther. But it’s also appropriate given the way Marshall presents the man once known as “Mr. Civil Rights” as a swashbuckling, arrogant, almost devil-may-care superhero attorney barnstorming the country in pursuit of justice and equality.

Written by Connecticut attorney Michael Koskoff and his son, Joseph, Marshall is not the story of the first black Supreme Court justice’s entire life. The movie takes place decades before Marshall was ever nominated to the court. Instead, Marshall provides a snapshot of young Thurgood through the course of the Connecticut trial of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who was arrested in 1940 for the rape, kidnapping and attempted murder of his white boss, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Marshall, at the time an attorney in the NAACP’s civil rights division and seven years out of Howard University School of Law, travels to Connecticut to defend Spell. When the white judge presiding over the case refuses to let Marshall be the lead lawyer on the case, Marshall enlists a local Jewish attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), as the puppet for his legal ventriloquism. Marshall feeds Friedman his strategy, arguments and ideas and sits on his hands as he watches Friedman clumsily make his way through them.

Hudlin ends the film with an image of Marshall after he’s pulled into a train station in the Deep South. A mischievous smile creeping across his face, he grabs a paper cup to get a drink of water from a whites-only water fountain. Marshall tips his hat to an older black gentleman who’s watching, clearly astonished, and continues on his way.

The scene exposes how Marshall is more of an exercise in reflecting contemporary black attitudes about race and rebellion than it is connected to the way Marshall enacted that rebellion in his life as an NAACP lawyer, solicitor general under Lyndon Johnson, and then as a member of the Supremes. It’s certainly ahistorical. The real Marshall was a skilled politician, which made him an effective courtroom lawyer. He was charmingly persuasive, according to those who knew him, able to persuade white Southerners to do his bidding even against the wishes of fire-breathing racist sheriffs.

“He wasn’t an activist or a protester. He was a lawyer,” Marshall’s NAACP colleague, attorney Jack Greenberg, said in a 1999 documentary that asserts Marshall always followed the rules of the segregated South during his many trips there.

In any fictive portrait based on true life, a certain amount of interpretation is expected. But Marshall fundamentally changes our understanding of Marshall as a person and a real-life superhero. Thanks to accounts from family, colleagues and biographers such as Juan Williams, we know Marshall was smart, strategic and conscious of preserving his life and safety so that he could live to fight another day.

Hudlin superimposes modern conceptions of black heroism onto a period courtroom drama. He’s not the first to do so, of course. Both the 2016 adaptation of Roots and the now-canceled WGN series Underground told historical stories calibrated for a modern audience that wants and deserves to see black characters exhibit agency over their fates. Combined with the decision to cast the dark-skinned Boseman and Keesha Sharp as Marshall and his wife, Buster, Hudlin’s choices feel reactive to the colorism and racism in modern Hollywood. That choice ends up flattening an aspect of Marshall that certainly had an effect on his life: his privilege as a light-skinned, wavy-haired lawyer who grew up as the middle-class son of a Baltimore woman with a graduate degree from Columbia and a father who worked as a railway porter.

If ever there was a couple who fit the profile of the black bourgeoisie, it was Thurgood and Buster Marshall. Casting Boseman and Sharp may be a way to thumb one’s nose at the screwed-up obsession with skin tone that pervaded the black elite in the early 20th century and continues to block opportunities in modern-day Hollywood, but it also erases part of our understanding of how Marshall moved through the world.

Marshall possessed a terrific legal mind and used it to hold the country accountable to its founding ideals. He was a pioneer for daring to think that equality could be achieved by challenging the country’s institutions, but he also expressed a deep reverence for and faith in them. He would have been seen by whites in the South as a Northern agitator, and he knew it — the real Thurgood slept with his clothes on in case a lynch mob decided to confront him in the middle of the night. Altering Marshall so much in a movie meant to celebrate him ends up cheapening the gesture. It’s like making a biopic about Barack Obama and turning him into Jesse Jackson. He just wasn’t that type of dude.

It wouldn’t matter so much that Boseman’s Marshall strays so far from the real man if it wasn’t for the fact that Marshall tends to exist now mostly as a Black History Month factoid (even though multiple biographies have been written about his life and work).

Thurgood, a 2011 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, goes too far in the opposite direction. Clips of Fishburne show a stiff and overly reverential character better suited for a museum video re-enactment or a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I sound like the story of Thurgood Marshall is a Goldilocks conundrum. Fishburne-as-Marshall was too stiff. Boseman-as-Marshall was too loose. Maybe a third attempt will get it just right.

Every time I see a film by a black director or that stars black people and I love it unreservedly, I experience a mélange of awe, reverence and respect that comes from witnessing an amazing work of art. And then comes the wave of relief.

Because the stakes are so high — every so-called “black film” must succeed to secure another! — you feel some kind of way about having to type all the reasons a film doesn’t work, knowing that those words have consequences but still need to be expressed. In short, it’s the feeling of “I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win.”

I hate this feeling. If ever there was a selfish reason for wishing the film industry would hurry up and achieve racial and gender parity, this is it.


Hudlin’s directorial oeuvre is squarely commercial. His gaze is unfussy, with few stylistic flourishes, likely influenced by his past 15 years directing episodic television. His last movie was Wifey, a TV movie starring Tami Roman. His last feature was the 2002 romantic comedy Serving Sara, starring Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley, but he’s probably best known for Boomerang, House Party and The Ladies Man. Thus it’s no surprise that Hudlin directs Marshall as a crowd-pleaser, but the nuances of Marshall’s life get lost.

What’s disappointing about the way Marshall is translated for the big screen is that real-life heroes come in a variety of forms. They’re complicated. They’re not saintly, nor are they all hot-headed crusaders. And that’s OK.

One of the most admirable aspects of Loving was that it was a historical drama with the patience to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, as the quiet, country people they were. They seem as unlikely a pair to make civil rights history in the film as they were when they lived. But Loving came from the Focus Features division of NBCUniversal, a production house known for unconventional work. Marshall is not an art house film, and I don’t think it needed to be to tell Marshall’s story. Hidden Figures was another historical drama meant for wide consumption. It’s not perfect, but Hidden Figures was so full of charm that it overcame the white saviorism added to Kevin Costner’s character, which didn’t exist in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book.

The shortcomings that separate Marshall from Hidden Figures and Loving are the same ones that give it the feeling of a TV movie. Aside from focusing on one specific area of Marshall’s life rather than the whole of it, Marshall does little to escape or subvert some of the most irritating biopic tropes.

For instance, the screenwriters jam Boseman’s mouth full of exposition about his accomplishments rather than demonstrating them. He rattles them off to Friedman in the form of a verbal resume.

The movie includes a nightclub scene that functions as little more than a non sequitur to shout, “HEY, THURGOOD MARSHALL WAS FRIENDS WITH ZORA NEALE HURSTON AND LANGSTON HUGHES. DID YOU KNOW ZORA AND LANGSTON HAD AN ICY RELATIONSHIP? BECAUSE WE DID!”

The three aren’t around long enough to discuss anything substantive. Their interaction doesn’t serve as foreshadowing for some other part of the movie. They’re just there because they all lived in Harlem. It’s little more than fat to be trimmed in a nearly two-hour movie.

But the most obvious weak point may lie in the flashbacks to the interactions between Strubing and Spell, which are filled with so much melodrama that they’d be perfectly at home on Lifetime. It’s not that those tropes don’t have their place. It’s just not on a screen that’s 30 feet high.

Boseman, as watchable as ever, makes Marshall a winking, confident wisecracker with a disarming smile. He’s full of smarts and bravado, communicating the real off-hours aspects of Marshall’s ribald sense of humor.

In the future, though, I hope screenwriters and filmmakers have more faith in the capacity of audiences to appreciate all kinds of heroes. As tempting as it is to superimpose modern politics onto historical figures, it can be more edifying to simply let them breathe so that we can appreciate their efforts within the context of their own times. Such context allows us to more fully understand the cost of their struggles and celebrate them all the more for winning.

The new Thurgood ‘Marshall’ movie is a thrilling What-Had-Happened-Was Superstar Chadwick Boseman and director Reggie Hudlin talk colorism and the black film renaissance

Chadwick Boseman remembers the exact moment when he understood why the work he was doing — not just the grabbing of marquees, not just working alongside Hollywood’s top talent, not just surprising critics with how easily he melts into a role of some of the world’s most famous men — was cemented.

He was on the set of Draft Day, a 2014 sports drama about the Cleveland Browns and its general manager (Kevin Costner) who wants to turn around his consistently losing team with a hot draft pick. “When you’re doing a car shot,” Boseman says, leaning in and slightly pushing back the sleeves of his sharp, black bomber, “you’re following the lead car.” He said they stopped in front of the projects. “I get out of the car, and somebody says, ‘Yo, that’s that dude from that baseball movie outside, right?!’ Everybody in the projects came outside, and they were like, ‘Hey, hey, hey! I got your movie on DVD in the house!’ The DVD hadn’t come out yet. They were like, ‘It didn’t come out yet? Oh, no, no. We didn’t mean it that way. But look — I saw it.’ ” He says that’s what it’s all about. “You want people to appreciate what you’ve been doing.”

This week, Boseman’s latest film, Marshall, opens. Once again, the actor takes on a role of a historical, powerful-in-his-field man. He’s portrayed baseball and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson and the influential James Brown. Now he’s legendary lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

It’s an interesting casting, to be sure. Part of Marshall’s story is rooted in his light skin. It was a privilege. Marshall himself was the highest of yellows, and his skin color — on the verge of passable — was unmissable. Boseman, on the other hand is decidedly black, with striking chocolate skin — and that factor almost prevented him from even going after the role.

It’s an interesting casting, to be sure. Part of Marshall’s story is rooted in his light skin. It was a privilege.

Reginald Hudlin, the film’s director, said it’s been a hot topic, even among his close circle. “I’ve had friends who admitted to me, ‘I went in going I don’t know if this casting works.’ And they also have admitted, within 20 seconds, that concern was gone, it had never occurred to them. Because Chadwick’s performance is the exact spirit of Thurgood Marshall. He said that people who have clerked under Marshall, who knew him intimately, are more than satisfied. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, how did you capture all those little nuances of his personality? You guys nailed it.’ To have that affirmed by people who have firsthand knowledge is a huge relief.”


But Marshall isn’t a biopic. It’s a dissection of one of the best legal minds in American history. And as he has done in his previous biographical work, you stop wondering about the actor at all, let alone the shade of his skin. “If this was a cradle-to-grave story about Marshall, obviously we would have to deal with his complexion,” said Boseman, who is also credited as a producer on the film. “Right now, we’re dealing with one case. He’s walking into this courtroom as a black man. He’s not a black man passing as a white man. He didn’t try to pass as a white man. He showed up as the black attorney, right? He showed up as a black man and got gagged for being black, right?”

“They didn’t say,” Boseman stops to laugh, “ ‘We’re going to gag you because you’re light-skinned-ded.’ ”

Marshall, at its best, is an examination of Marshall’s brilliance. It’s an up-close, deep dive into how Marshall changed the course of American history. “Everything is a risk,” Boseman said. “No matter what movie you do, it’s a risk. … It’s also a risk, if you look like the person, to play the role because then there’s the pressure of doing certain things a certain way.”

The court case used to examine Marshall’s legal savvy is relatively unknown — a black man in Connecticut (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of raping a white woman (Kate Hudson) — and Marshall is stripped of his voice. He’s told by a racist judge that he can’t speak in the courtroom. He couldn’t speak on behalf of his client at all. Instead, he had to employ Sam Friedman, an insurance lawyer who is a white Jewish man (Josh Gad), and teach him how to try this case. There’s a tone of Mighty Whitey here, to be sure, intermingled with a lesson on the importance of allies. Timely.

That said, it’s Boseman’s film. And not for nothing, he absolutely nails it. In four short years, the Howard University-educated Boseman has positioned himself as a force. He’s a box-office draw, and at the top of next year he leads the highly anticipated Black Panther, which surely will change the course of Hollywood, or at least continue to challenge the notion that films with predominantly black casts don’t travel internationally.

Not that Boseman isn’t up for the challenge. He’s the black man — sometimes he’s by himself — gracing Vanity Fair-like magazine gatefold layouts representing the next biggest thing in Hollywood. His representation is undeniable. And he understands his worth.


This film feels very much like 2017. It takes place in December 1940, a time when the NAACP was concentrating on its litigation in the South, suing over voting rights and equal pay for black teachers and segregation in higher education. But in the North, issues abounded as well — in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, there was a 1933 law that banned racial discrimination in public places, and it went unenforced in 1940. Marshall was 32 years old at the time and just beginning the work that would change the lives of black Americans for generations to come.

That notion of public discrimination is tested constantly — turn to any current news headline or cable TV news lower third for quick proof. And Marshall the movie sometimes feels like a thrilling, current-day, true-life drama. Often, when we talk about the historic work the NAACP did with Marshall as its chief legal brain trust, we think about the work done south of the Mason-Dixon line. But this case is set in a conservative white Connecticut town — away from the hard-and-fast Jim Crow laws that crippled black folks who lived in American Southern states.

“That was very much our intent. ‘Why did you choose this case? Why didn’t you do him as a Supreme Court justice? How come you didn’t do Brown v. Board of Education? Those are all worthy stories, stories that the public thinks they know — ‘Oh, I learned about Brown in fifth grade. I got that.’ You don’t got this,” Hudlin said. “You don’t know this case, you don’t know the outcome of this case, which gives me the chance to be true to genre. Because I think genre is what saves these movies from being medicine movies, which I despise. You want to make a movie that works if it wasn’t Thurgood Marshall. If Joe Blow was against the odds in this legal case, does the movie still work?”

It does. “This crime has all these broader implications, economic implications, for black folk. And for the institution of the NAACP. The truth is messy. Everyone comes into the case with their own particular set of -isms,” Hudlin said. “The challenge is, do you respect the process of the legal system to get to uncomfortable truths? And do you have enough personal integrity to acknowledge uncomfortable truths as they emerge, that don’t fit your preconceived notions? That’s how America works, you know?”


This film premieres right at the start of Hollywood’s award season preseason. In the fourth quarter of each year, we’ve come to expect the year’s best to be presented, or some of the year’s most generously budgeted films to hit the big screen.

But Marshall, perhaps, carries a bigger weight. It feels like a tipoff of a major moment for black creatives both behind and in front of the camera. This is the first time we’ve seen so many black directors working on films of this magnitude and at this level. Coming soon after this film are projects by directors Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle In Time) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), and Gina Prince-Bythewood is writing and directing Spider-Man spinoff Silver & Black. And the list goes on.

“He showed up as a black man and got gagged for being black. They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to gag you because you’re light-skinned-ded.’ ” — Chadwick Boseman

“I would say like three, maybe four years ago … in separate moments … we’ve talked about what’s been happening over the past few years. And I remember leaving several of those conversations, and we said, ‘Let’s not say it publicly, but we’re in the renaissance,’ ” Boseman says. “Let’s not say it publicly, because if we say it, then people will think we’re happy with it. That we’re satisfied with that. So let’s not ever actually say it. I think now we’re at a point where there’s no point in not saying it, because it’s obvious that this is a different moment.”

This is a huge moment, but it comes with questions — plenty of them.

“My bigger-picture analysis is that there are 20-year cycles,” said Hudlin. “You have this explosion in the 1970s with the blaxploitation movement, which created a set of stars and a set of icons so powerful they still resonate today. You can say Shaft, you can say Superfly, you can say Foxy Brown, and those things still mean things to people 40 years later.” He said that then there was a five- or 10-year period, a kind of collapsing, where basically in the ’80s you have Eddie Murphy and Prince. They don’t have folks really able to make movies. “Then, in the ’90s, there was that explosion of Spike Lee, and myself, and John Singleton. Those films were different from the movies of the ’70s. More personal, you know?”

He said blacks were telling their own stories, and there were greater production values. “And then like a 10-year period, a shutdown, and really you have Tyler Perry. And now this new wave, right? And when you look at all three of these periods, the thing is, the movies get bigger, they get more varied in their subject matter, and the production value keeps increasing. When you look at the bounty of black images, of black filmmakers working in film and television — no. We’ve never had it this good. We’ve never had material this rich, and to me, the outstanding question is, when does it no longer become a cycle and becomes a fixture and part of the entertainment landscape?”

As they say on social media, that’s a question that needs an answer.