History has a way of calcifying complicated heroes who were full of vigor, especially when their most famous accomplishments came later in life.
Such is the case for Thurgood Marshall, best known as the man who argued Brown vs. Board of Education and convinced the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional. After that he became the first black Supreme Court justice. This is stuff that kids learn in high school, or earlier, we hope.
The brisk, entertaining new film Marshall, opening Friday in Dallas, isn't really interested in any of that. This Marshall, played by Chadwick Boseman, is a hungry lawyer making a name for himself. "He's young. He's handsome. He's got this swagger about him," says Marshall director and veteran Hollywood player Reginald Hudlin. "He smokes. He drinks. He flirts. He fights. He's a real guy's guy. You want to hang out with him."
Just don't underestimate him. Marshall was the go-to litigator for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He traveled the country, usually to small towns that didn't want him there, and argued on behalf of black defendants railroaded by Jim Crow injustice. As Gilbert King writes in his Pulitzer-winning book Devil in the Grove, another Marshall story being developed as a film, "A fellow NAACP lawyer thought of Marshall as a 'suicidal crusader,' because he involved himself in such explosive criminal cases in the South at an exceptionally crucial time in the history of the blacks' struggle for equal opportunity."
One such case lies at the heart of Marshall, with one important exception. The film takes place in early-'40s Connecticut, where Marshall defended a black chauffeur-butler (newly minted Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown) accused of raping his white employer (Kate Hudson). A longtime Connecticut lawyer, Michael Koskoff, wrote the screenplay. And Hudlin was eager to direct, largely because of the setting.
"Southern racism has been done a lot," says Hudlin, whose previous directorial efforts include House Party and Boomerang. "We've all seen the tobacco-chewing sheriff, right? Northern racism way too often gets a pass. That's the style that I think is a little more relevant today. There's a level of gentility about it. They're not always as explicit about it, but it's still pernicious and dangerous. So I thought it would speak to audiences a little more."
Hudlin, Koskoff and Boseman have pulled off a deft balancing act with Marshall. It's a fun and lively movie that doesn't sacrifice the story's inherent seriousness at the altar of cheap entertainment.
There's even an odd-couple buddy-movie element: Marshall enlisted Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish attorney from Connecticut, as co-counsel; the judge in the case (James Cromwell) forbade Marshall from speaking in the courtroom, so Marshall became the behind-the-scenes orchestrator of the case. Friedman, meanwhile, became a sort of prototype for future NAACP lawyers like the stalwart Jack Greenberg, another Jewish man who knew discrimination firsthand and relished the chance to fight it.
Marshall knew how to let off the steam accumulated through his high-stress calling. He loved bourbon, cigarettes and women, including (but not only) his steadfast wife, Buster. He was known to hit the Harlem nightclubs; one scene in Marshall finds him drinking with the writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who shared plenty of drama of their own.
But when it was time to work, Marshall would hop a train at a moment's notice and head into the heart of darkness. There was something of the superhero about him. As King writes in Devil in the Grove, "Across the South, in their darkest, most demoralizing hours, when falsely accused men sat in jails, when women and children stood before the ashy ruins of mob-torched homes, the spirits of black citizens would be lifted with two words whispered in defiance and hope: 'Thurgood's coming.'"
As Hudlin sees it, Marshall's arrival is once again right on time.
"I think this is a time when there's a lot of anxiety," Hudlin says. "People watch the news, and they panic or get depressed and feel like they can't do anything about it. That's really not true. When you see these two guys who go up against institutional racism on the scale that they did, you think, You know what? Two people, unlikely allies coming from two very different places, can come together and make a difference."