‘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.

2017 Emmys: Historic wins for Lena Waithe and Donald Glover Plus Sterling K. Brown wins for outstanding actor in a drama series

There are still some things we can count on: Stephen Colbert will find new and stinging ways to insult the president, Sterling K. Brown will give a helluva super-black acceptance speech, and no matter who’s president, Oprah Winfrey is still queen of America.

So how were the Emmys, you ask? Fairly enjoyable, very political and historic.

Both Donald Glover and Lena Waithe made history with their wins for outstanding comedy directing and outstanding comedy writing, respectively. Waithe, who co-wrote Master of None’s poignant Thanksgiving episode, became the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing. Glover took home two trophies Sunday night for his work on Atlanta: He became the first black person to win for directing a comedy series and also won for outstanding lead actor in a comedy.

Waithe began by invoking U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters by beginning her speech with “Reclaiming my time.” She went on to shout-out her queer brothers and sisters, which was especially meaningful given that Thanksgiving was about her character Denise’s personal journey as a lesbian.

“I love you all and, last but certainly not least, my LGBTQIA family,” Waithe said. “I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.

“And for everybody out there that showed so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know.”

Waithe has had an amazing ride, from working as a writer on the Black & Sexy TV show Hello Cupid and writing on Bones to finding her way to a hit show in Master of None. She also produced Dear White People (the movie, not the Netflix show).

It was quite a night for Glover, who unseated two-time winner and Transparent actor Jeffrey Tambor for the acting trophy. “I want to thank Trump for making black people No. 1 on the most oppressed list. He’s the reason I’m probably up here,” Glover said while accepting the acting award.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

During his acceptance speech for his directing Emmy, Glover made sure to thank Hiro Murai, the primary director for Atlanta, who is largely responsible for its distinctive style. Murai and Glover have a partnership that predates the show. They’ve worked together on music videos, and Atlanta is Murai’s first television series directing job. He’s since directed episodes of Snowfall and Legion, both FX shows like Atlanta. Although Murai wasn’t a winner Sunday night, I have few doubts that we’ll see him on the Emmy stage soon enough.

And as long as I’m gazing into a crystal ball, I’ll suggest that we’ll likely see Insecure director Melina Matsoukas there too. Insecure was understandably excluded from nominations for its first season. But next year, when the exponentially better second season is eligible, will be different. (There were any number of comedies — The Good Place, You’re The Worst or Better Things, for example — that could have replaced Modern Family as a nominee in the outstanding comedy category. Not that it matters much. They still would have gotten trounced by Veep.) The first season of Insecure was strong, but showrunner Prentice Penny and Issa Rae now clearly have embraced the possibilities that HBO, and HBO money, offers. The writing has grown sharper, and I’m sure the Emmys will follow.

While Winfrey’s HBO effort, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, did not win for best television movie (the romantic and lovely Black Mirror: San Junipero did instead), no one was about to forget about Miss O.

Upon accepting an award for Last Week Tonight, John Oliver, asked, “Where’s Oprah? I’d like to thank Oprah’s seat-filler. I met Oprah once. It was like meeting the queen, but much, much better.”

This is Us actor Brown, who won for outstanding actor lead actor in a drama series, was the single person who not only was played off the stage but also had his microphone cut because he didn’t take the hint when the music in the Microsoft Theater rose to drown him out. The part of me that wanted to go to bed on time was annoyed. The other part of me was totally understanding, because who wouldn’t be completely jazzed about beating Anthony Hopkins in an acting contest after a 19-year Emmy drought for black lead actors, which is precisely what Brown did? No one with sense, that’s who.

Anyway, kudos to Brown for his ebullient speech-giving skills. He worked in references to Mad Men, Martin, black love (the idea, not the OWN series), Breaking Bad and Homicide: Life on the Street. And he thanked his co-stars, Chrissy Metz and Mandy Moore, telling them, “You are the best white TV family that a brotha has ever had.”

So, yeah, it took a while.

Other highlights of the night: British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed won for outstanding lead actor in a limited series for his role as Nasir Khan in The Night Of, making him the first Muslim and South Asian man to win in the category.

Ahmed, who is almost unfailingly effervescent, turned serious in his acceptance speech, but not without thanking Winfrey first since he sat next to her during the broadcast. “It’s always strange reaping the rewards of a story that’s based on real-world suffering, but if this show has shone a light on some of the prejudice in our society, Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, then maybe that’s something,” he said.

Of the many cracks at our president, the most biting included ribbing over the fact that he never won an Emmy for The Apprentice, which he was so bothered by that during a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton he was still insisting he should have won.

A consolation prize: Alec Baldwin won the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series for portraying him on Saturday Night Live.

The starring ladies of 9 to 5, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, took to the stage to reveal the outstanding supporting actor in a limited series (which went to Big Little Lies actor Alexander Skarsgård) and gave perhaps the most obvious subtweet of the evening:

“Well, back in 1980 … we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda said.

“And in 2017 we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Tomlin chimed in.

As for Colbert, his barbs directed at Trump were so biting that I momentarily worried how our commander in chief would respond.

Among the many ribs: “There were over 450 original scripted shows made this year. Of course, there’s no way anyone could possibly watch that much TV, other than the president, who seems to have a lot of time for that sort of thing. Hello, sir! Thank you for joining us,” Colbert said while waving at the camera.

However, Colbert’s best line of the evening was directed not at the president but at fellow white late-night host Bill Maher. Colbert included Maher in a list of actors of color present at the ceremony, including Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley and Anthony Anderson.

Capitalizing on Maher’s troubles after he had used the phrase “house n—-” on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, Colbert remarked, “I assume he’s black because he’s so comfortable using the N-word.”