‘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 Real’s’ Jeannie Mai is raising awareness of human trafficking in new film The talk show host is executive producer of ‘Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking’

According to the Department of Homeland Security, every year millions of men, women and children are trafficked in countries around the world, generating billions of dollars in profit, making it second only to drug trafficking in transactional crime.

These shocking statistics came as a surprise to Jeannie Mai, co-host of daytime TV show The Real, when she began raising awareness around this epidemic, in which only 2 percent of victims make it out alive.

Mai partnered with filmmaker Sadhvi Siddhali Shree as the executive producer for a powerful and raw documentary entitled Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking. With raw images of life on the streets, heart-pounding rescues and gut-wrenching personal stories, the documentary offers hope and empowerment, with hopes to engage others in a movement to end modern-day slavery and abuse on a global scale.

“It’s all about being woke to what’s happening in the world,” Mai said. “The word ‘trafficking’ is weird in itself and was invented just a few years ago to describe the selling and trading of human beings because we didn’t understand exactly what it was. It started off as sex slavery then modern-day slavery, and now it’s trafficking.”

Mai hopes to create awareness that leads to action. She spoke with The Undefeated about the documentary, as well as about working on The Real, the secret behind her positivity and how she defines success.


What’s the nature of Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking?

This film is gritty and, honestly, painful to watch, but it’s real. It will help people understand how human trafficking takes place 360 degrees around us. You’ll feel a calling to contribute to the movement after watching it.

What motivated you to get involved with the film?

It’s been my dream to put together a piece of art that would describe what human trafficking looks like. I joined forces with [Sadhvi] Siddhali [Shree], a beautiful woman, monk, Army veteran and powerful filmmaker. I fell in love with her passion, and we both had the same fervor to educate the world and get people more socially conscious about the brevity of trafficking.

What was your first experience becoming more hands-on with learning about sex trafficking?

I went to Thailand with an organization called NightLight and lived in a brothel for about three weeks. That’s where I really saw the darkness of these women’s lives. They’re trapped and voiceless, and their families are being used as pawns.

[It inspired another documentary I’m working on,] Along the Line, where we shot in Vietnam, Sa Pa, Thailand, to speak with three traffic survivors who shared what it was like to be enslaved, used, abused and manipulated, and how their lives are now as heroines. It’ll come out by early 2019.

What triggered the need to learn more about sex trafficking?

I didn’t know what it was until about eight years ago, when it happened to a family friend in Vietnam. Her uncle had sold her to a brothel as a sex slave to pay off the family debt. I was angry, disgusted and confused. I did research, made phone calls, spoke with government officials and then learned that this situation happens to millions of people every day. She is OK now.

Switching gears, what can we expect for the live airing of season four of The Real?

It’s going to be a fun season with more giveaways, money and amazing, heartfelt stories that’s going to teach you how to love yourself better. Loni [Love], Tamera [Mowry-Housley], Adrienne [Houghton] and I are able to remind women every day that they are valuable and worthy. All of us ladies on the show are a work in progress. We constantly share our hiccups, and we’re transparent about it.

What have you learned from your co-hosts?

First off, I’ve learned to love brown liquor because of Loni. Tam-Tam [Tamera] has taught me the power of poise. She is so poised in every situation of life. Adrienne teaches me about hopeless romantic love, and I’m just like, ‘Let’s get some Netflix and Cheetos.’

What’s the secret behind your positivity?

It’s from turning L’s [losses] into W’s [wins]. Like anyone else, I’ve gone through my own losses, whether that’s relationships, setbacks or insecurities. But when I look back, I really appreciate those experiences because being on the ground taught me how not to only get up, but to stand up and strut.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

There’s always going to be someone who won’t believe in your worth. Don’t let that person be you.

As a TV style expert, what got you into fashion?

I love fashion; it’s my armor. Fashion allows me to tell you my story before I get myself together to tell you. That’s what’s so powerful about it. Style is having that swag from the way you walk, talk, laugh, move your hands, type of vernacular you use. All of that comes together and you are a dope fashion piece, even if you only have a shirt and jeans on.

What’s your advice to women who don’t feel pretty?

Own your pretty, boo! It can be as simple as that you have a great smile or amazing ankles. Whatever it is, find it and highlight what that beautiful part is and dress the rest up. It starts there, and then from the ground up, boom, you bloom.

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.