Thurgood Marshall enjoys a prominent place in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and for good reason. Marshall became the first black justice to sit on the Supreme Court in 1967, and served until retiring in 1991. (After an outcry, it was announced last month that Justice Clarence Thomas would be added to the museum.)
But long before he took his seat on the nation's highest court, the Baltimore native was a scrappy attorney who argued civil rights cases around the country — most notably Brown v. Board of Education, the case that would lead the Supreme Court in 1954 to declare segregated public education unconstitutional.
One of those earlier cases took Marshall to Connecticut in 1940, where a rich white woman accused her black chauffeur of rape. Something about the case didn’t jibe, and Marshall was determined to uncover the truth, no matter how painful.
“I think the Northern racism [was] more genteel. There’s a superficial appearance of tolerance, but the fact is that institutional racism remains,” said Reginald Hudlin, director of the new film “Marshall,” which details the Connecticut case. “Which is why I think the movie resonates with most people. It more resembles how things function — or dysfunction — today.”
Chadwick Boseman, known for playing Black Panther in the Marvel Comics Universe films, portrays the young Marshall. Like the lawyer he recreates, Mr. Boseman graduated from the District’s Howard University.
“I don’t think people are completely stupid about how racism affected the North as well. People that are knowledgeable know that housing was basically Jim Crow,” Mr. Boseman said of the less “accepted” but no less onerous segregation of the North versus the South. “I think [people] have compartmentalized themselves into groups so much that they haven’t heard other sides of the story.”
Both Messrs. Hudlin and Boseman believe that Marshall, despite all of his accomplishments, remains a bit of an “underrated hero” in the American psyche.
“There’s sort of a Mount Rushmore of black progress on the list: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. No. 4 should be Thurgood Marshall,” Mr. Hudlin said. “All those other people broke the law in pursuit of justice. [Marshall] actually made laws. He took the promise of the American Constitution and dragged it into reality.”
Mr. Boseman previously portrayed another barrier-buster in 2013 with “42,” based on Jackie Robinson’s extraordinarily difficult first days on the then all-white Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, forever shattering baseball’s color barrier.
Mr. Boseman said many of Robinson’s views would shock people today, particularly given the baseball great’s later support for Richard Nixon.
“The interesting thing is that both James Brown and Jackie Robinson supported him,” Mr. Boseman said. “Being a black Republican wasn’t a weird thing, but for James Brown it was the idea of being basically a black entrepreneur. And I think it was similar for Jackie Robinson — essentially if you’re saying ‘black power,’ you’re saying that you can be self-sufficient and you don’t need the government. That is a Republican idea.”
However, Mr. Boseman is quick to point out that the right-wing “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” manta assumes that everyone — black and white — begins at the same starting line.
“Our journey here in America, we were put behind,” he said. “So I think those ideas were very interesting, but I think seeing how that idea affects a man when people in his race don’t necessarily agree with it, that’s an interesting story.”
Starring alongside Mr. Boseman in the new film is actor Josh Gad as Marshall’s co-counsel in the case, Sam Friedman. The two men, while respectful of one another, nonetheless butt heads on several issues of ideology and practice throughout the film.
“For Sam, he’s a guy who’s been living this unfulfilled life, and he understand the value of having a mission, regardless of cost,” Mr. Hudlin said. “You can describe the movie a lot of ways: It’s a legal thriller, it’s a ‘Western,’ it’s a buddy movie.
“But I think in this case, the friendships — not just partnership but friendship between Sam Friedman and Thurgood Marshall — is earned,” he said. “The fact is they really do need each other. They’ve both been a one-man band so long that they discover in the process the importance of having allies.”
Mr. Hudlin believes what was so key to Marshall’s success was his willingness to engage with people who disagreed with him, especially at a time when the culture at large might have been rather unwilling to hear from prominent black voices fighting segregation in the North and South.
“What is terrifying is we’re now living in an era where people go ‘we don’t have to acknowledge truth.’ That is what’s scary,” Mr. Hudlin said. “Truth is kind of a ‘true north’ that we can all build a consensus of reality on. One would hope.
“When you reject truth, that leads to anarchy. There is hope in that I think most Americans do appreciate and respect truth.”
Truth can be painful, as it is as the Connecticut case in “Marshall” unfolds. Through it all, the force of the protagonist and later Supreme Court justice was firm, with his moral arrow always pointing toward righteousness.
“He was [adept at] endearing himself to people around him, even people that may not like him,” Mr. Hudlin said. “It’s easy to get in a room and talk to people that agree with you, it’s another type of person that wants to get in a room with all the people that disagree with him … and perhaps have his mind changed or change theirs.”
“Marshall” opens Friday in the District.
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