“You don’t have Obama without Thurgood Marshall,” Marshall director Reginald Hudlin explained to me as we discussed why he was inspired to bring the late Supreme Court Justice’s massive life to the big screen. In the midst of a turbulent fall where the world seems to be spinning out of control each day — Marshall is about to jolt us all awake again. Over the course of his lifetime, Thurgood Marshall worked diligently to bring Civil Rights to all Americans. These days it’s more and more evident that this country has done very little to honor his legacy.
Still, Thurgood Marshall’s story was one that Hudlin has always wanted to tell. “Thurgood Marshall has always been a giant hero of mine. I almost named my son Thurgood … I thought that was a little bit too much,” he said laughing. For Hudlin, it was Marshall who laid the groundwork for equality under the judicial system. “The Constitution was a tremendous promise of what America could be, but flawed from the beginning because of racism and slavery,” Hudlin articulated. “And the man who did the most to make it a reality is Thurgood Marshall.”
Set just as the United States was poised to enter the Second World War, Marshall hones in on a facet of racism not often seen on the big screen. We have grown accustomed to full-fledged bigots, with their white robes and torches in Southern set films—Marshall explores something else entirely. “I liked that it was set in Connecticut because Northern racism kind of gets a pass,” Hudlin revealed. “Everybody is used to the Southern redneck sheriff chewing tobacco, we’ve seen that. We’re all comfortable with condemning those people. ‘Oh, we’re better than them.’ But when you see Northern racism — which is much more genteel on its face, but it’s the same institutional racism that looks more like what exists today. I thought, okay this will be more resonant to the audience because you can’t simply write it off as ‘back then.’” The visceral parallels aligning the past to the present are what make the film so eerie to watch. “45 people … That look like the same,” Hudlin expressed. “The ones that are there today and the ones that were depicted in the movie.”
As a young Civil Rights lawyer — the sole lawyer working for the NAACP in 1941, Marshall crossed the country taking on case after case with the hopes that he could save the lives of his brethren who had been condemned solely because of their race.
Finding the right person to play Marshall was also extremely important for Hudlin. Choosing Chadwick Boseman who has brought pillars like James Brown and Jackie Robinson to the big screen was a no-brainer. For Boseman, it was important that the film wasn’t classified as a biopic. Instead of a comprehensive overlook of Marshall’s life, this was merely a snapshot.
“It was a movie that you could enjoy whether you knew about Thurgood Marshall or not,” Boseman expressed thoughtfully “If you didn’t know any of it you still could enjoy this movie because it’s a Western. He’s the marshal coming into town to implement justice. It’s a buddy attorney movie. It’s a whodunit. And those elements, I think, are what grabbed me and made me want to do it. I didn’t feel like the movie was one that you had to see because it was important. It was one that you would want to see, that you would laugh at it, you would cry. And you would go through the myriad of emotions that you should go through when a good story is told.”
Hudlin knew he needed Boseman steering his ship because the actor and producer understood the how ingrained the Brown v. Board activist is in the fabric of our society. “The thing about Chadwick that I love about him. He is equally artist and intellectual, “Hudlin explained. “He is smart smart smart. And he’s truly a proud product of Howard University, in every sense of the word. So when you sit down with Chadwick and talk about Thurgood Marshall, he doesn’t have to research who Thurgood Marshall is.”
In the film, Marshall is effectively gagged. A judge refuses to grant him a license to practice law in the state of Connecticut, so he acts as a co-council and second chair to Sam Friedman – a young Jewish lawyer who is reluctant to get involved with such a racially charged case. Josh Gad who plays Friedman in the movie hopes that people see the film and use it as a catalyst to get up and do something. “There are still superheroes out there working as hard as ever in organizations like the NAACP, “ Gad said. “They are as relevant and necessary today as they may have been in 1941. But rather than having one lawyer they have an army of lawyers. I hope this gets people to feel like, “Oh, God! I’m one person, but I too can make a difference.”
The film follows a real-life incident that Marshall took on early in his career — wealthy socialite Eleanor Strubin (Kate Hudson) accuses her Black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) of sexual assault and attempted murder. “If he lost a case, there are huge consequences,” Hudlin said. “And one of those consequences is the NAACP — an organization over 100 years old. We figure, oh yeah they’re always around. Well, they could not have been.” It’s a disturbing question to consider. Would there be a Civil Rights Movement without Thurgood Marshall?
“You almost have to prove your innocence in this country as an African-American male, when you’re supposed to be proving guilt,” Brown reflected on playing his character Joseph Spell. “I think about that in 1941, I think about that in 2017. And how things may have moved a little bit, but not close to what they need to have gone.”
Sometimes even the material — the real-life facts of what had happened during the Connecticut v. Joseph Spell case were difficult to comprehend. “We were dumbfounded. These things were actually said, happening,” Hudson confessed. “And it was not only an amazing history lesson but to put yourself in that is — We must never forget our history. All of it.”
The role of Eleanor Strubin was not an easy one for Hudson to take on but at Hudlin’s urging, she decided to tackle it. “I got to play an incredibly complex character that’s trapped and lonely and makes a horrible decision that she can’t extricate herself from in any way, “ she reflected. “As an actor, those kinds of complexities are interesting to tackle.”
Despite all that Marshall accomplished in his life, the sense that history is a continuous echo was a hard pill for the cast to swallow. “You would think that it would have been something that people learned from, and instead we’re seeing history repeat itself,” Hudson said. “I think it’s just important to be a part of movies that make people continue to have the dialogue.”
Gad wants people who are fed up with the current political climate to use Marshall as an opportunity to activate their activism. After all, Marshall and Friedman laid some remarkable groundwork. “Here you have these two people, one who is a born activist, who’s going out there, and who’s ready to confront shotgun. Who’s ready to confront hatred, ” Gad stated. “And you have another person who is very aware of the hatred that exists out there. It’s on the cusp of America’s involvement in World War II. And he knows firsthand that he can easily become a pariah if he gets out there in a public way. And these two forces have to create an alliance on behalf of a person, who without their assistance will most likely die.”
We are all feeling the weight of the past and the present. It seems now more than ever to be closing in on us. “As an actor and someone who has a platform to speak to folks I often wrestle with, ‘what is my responsibility?'” Brown considers. “How do I make my voice heard? And what is it that I want to say in order to help shape the world into a world that I want to be a part of? Because that’s what Thurgood Marshall did. He did that with this case, several another cases, Brown vs. The Board of Education, and then as Supreme Court Justice.”
We obviously don’t have all of the answers about what to do and where to go from here — but Marshall’s message has and will be longlasting. As the interview came to a close, Boseman reflected on it all. “I feel like the film, for me, it is about giving people a sense of that hope and that fire that this man had and hopefully you can find a way to use that yourself,” he said quietly. “And also, the sense that these two men are in very different places at the beginning of the movie and find out they are actually in the same place. They can come out of their divisions and boundaries and work together. I think that’s something that’s very much needed in the world that we live in.”
Marshall debuts in theaters Friday, Oct. 13.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami