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In Reginald Hudlin's “Marshall,” Chadwick Boseman plays a young Thurgood Marshall, sent by the NAACP to defend a black man accused of raping a wealthy white socialite. Boseman is joined by a cast that includes Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad, Dan Stevens, Jussie Smollett, Keesha Sharp, Roger Guenveur Smith and more.
Hudlin and Boseman spoke with RogerEbert.com about their challenges in making the film, their hope that those who see it will better understand Justice Marshall, and how change happens.
Reggie, I’ve heard you speak several times at San Diego Comic-Con about the state of the industry for African-American filmmakers. How would you describe it today?
REGINALD HUDLIN: We were talking about what a great time this is for black storytellers, black actors and what we saw at this year’s Emmys and so on. And there was a little bit of fear of like, “Don't start calling attention to it because they'll take it away from us." That is a natural default position, when you are an oppressed people. Our gains are so fragile you feel an acute sense that it can be taken away tomorrow. And also we face acknowledging and undermining our drive or the assistance of others who are helping those being met. At the same time I feel that you do have to celebrate the wins as Americans not just as black folks. We all have to go, "oh, things are getting better" because if you're just fighting without acknowledging that we're winning, that things are getting better, how do you keep the spirit up to keep fighting?
Chadwick, I loved Marshall’s ties in the film. They showed so much spirit.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN: I think you have to give that credit to Ruth Carter. Part of what we wanted to show is that he's coming out of this Harlem utopia to a certain degree (the renaissance) and so he's a man about town. He has that style, he has jazz. These artists are his friends and so I think it fits him perfectly that he would carry that flair and swagger into this world that is a bit dangerous and present himself that way.
Justice Marshall had a distinguished and groundbreaking career. Why tell this story about a case that has been almost forgotten?
RH: Because it hasn't been told. A lot of people go, “Oh yeah, I know about the Brown case. I learned that in fifth grade,” and they were more likely to be dismissive of the film. But to start earlier with a case you don’t know, with an outcome you don’t know, with all the lower tabloid TMZ-esque qualities—it is going back in time but maybe with more contemporary themes.
This is one of those rare movies set in the past that seems to be in conversation with us today.
RH: Well, it's very funny because at one point I was desperately trying to finish the movie in enough time to show it at the Obama White House and there was just no way we were going to get it done in time. It was like, "Okay, a movie is a movie, just respect the process." And now everyone is like, "Oh thank goodness, this is the movie we need now. We did not need it a year ago we need it right in this moment.” And you just go, “Oh well, things happen when they're supposed to happen.” So whatever challenges we’ve had in terms of getting financing for the film or all the pieces coming together, we're at this historical moment where the country’s literally tearing itself apart and it's very easy for people to feel overwhelmed. I watch the news and I can't take it. It feels like we're losing something precious and we're not going to get it back. But what this movie says is: we faced even bigger obstacles and we overcame them. All we have to do is come together as allies and be smart and have a fidelity to the truth. All these characters came to the case with their own baggage, their own -isms but they believed in a fair version of our system that takes their finger off the scale and says “but here's the truth and it's messy; it's not clean but here's what happened.” When truth resonates like that it cuts through the nonsense.
It was very powerful in the film when the judge ruled that Marshall would not be allowed to speak in court. Was that a particularly difficult challenge for you as an actor?
CB: When I got to that point in the script, I was like, “Wait, I thought I was going to play Thurgood Marshall. I thought I was going to have all these great speeches and closing statements and I'm going to be gagged? Wait a minute!” I almost called Reggie to say, “How am I going to do this?” He reminded me of that moment in “Shakespeare in Love” when Mercutio said, “Wait a minute, I thought I was the lead.”
Then a few pages later it became, “Oh, this is why you do the movie.” Because this is the challenge. This was his challenge and this is my challenge, so I’m going to learn the most about this man by dealing with the challenges as the actor the same way he did as an attorney. The question is, first: how do I as the actor play the lead of the movie when I can’t talk? And then second: how do I win this case from the sidelines?
So it became a thing of, “Oh, you're coach or you’re the catcher who is giving the signals to the pitcher.” It was an extraordinary moment for me because I thought about so many moments where black people have played in the background and white people who took the credit. And I was like, that's actually an interesting story to expose through Thurgood Marshall. So it became a beautiful film experience. It became “Here's this guy who doesn't know how to argue a criminal case and now I'm going to show him how to do it.” That's a beautiful film moment that you wouldn't expect. So it became, “Okay, well now I've got to at least talk to Reggie about this film because it has a conceit that makes this film interesting.”
And there was also a powerful scene where Marshall talks to his wife on the phone. You see what he's given up. He's running around the country putting out fires as the movie words it, but he's got fires at home. He has to ask the question, “Should I have been there? Would this have happened if I was there?” All those questions are the unspoken things that he's dealing with as he has to continue to carry on this case and it shows the sacrifice that he's making to do this.
Reggie, this period drama was a departure for you from your usual comic films.
RH: It was so much fun. It’s very easy to get typed in the business and it’s very convenient. They go, “Oh Reggie, he's the funny guy” and unless you know me personally you don't know the other side. So like Quentin [Tarantino] and I had a very long relationship. With “Django Unchained” the movie’s genesis came out of our conversation about movies about slavery and which ones did and did not work. To me the only one that worked was “Spartacus,” so how do we make a movie like that about the American experience? So to be able to play in this canvas to work with actors of this caliber and Ruth Carter earlier, we've been friends for twenty years, with Tom Sigel my cinematographer, we talked about doing projects together for a long time. There's a lot of “ahhhh, finally” to work with people I’ve been respecting and just liking as people for years and to be able to tell this story—I almost named my son Thurgood. I've always been a huge admirer of the man and I always felt that his place in American history should be higher.
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