In the opening frames of the “Marshall” trailer, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice gets a setup worthy of a superhero: In the trailer’s opening frames, 32-year old NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) sips whiskey at a bar; a group of threatening racists gather around him. “You gentlemen are making a mistake,” says Marshall, in the tone of a calm badass as he steadies himself for the inevitable physical confrontation.
Boseman said a cocksure portrayal is the only logical interpretation. “His job was to be the lone attorney running around for the NAACP, dealing with cases in towns where there was racial prejudice and there was inequality,” he said. “Who has the arrogance to walk into those places and actually believe that they either will win, or they can set up the case in such a way that it can go to a higher level, and then you can win on that level, including 29 of 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court? So you got to ask yourself the question, how do you do that and not have had an incredible amount of swagger.”
Marshall is the third time Boseman has taken on a 20th-century icon, having previously portrayed Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013) and James Brown “Get On Up” (2014). The three men couldn’t be more different, and so were Boseman’s preparations. For the intensely physical role of Robinson, Boseman said he first needed to get in touch with the emotional suffering of the man who broke baseball’s race barrier. For Brown, Boseman spent time in Brown’s birthplace in Barnwell, South Carolina (125 miles south of his own, in Anderson, South Carolina) to “get in touch with the voice of that soil so that the character could come through me.”
“Marshall” presented a completely different set of challenges. “There isn’t footage that would help me; he’s not that Supreme Court Justice,” he said. “This is the man you don’t know, so this is about pulling… to find a way to allow the essence of the man to be poured into my body.”
“He’s a man who lived in Harlem during a Renaissance,” said Boseman. “He did hang out with Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda Thomas) and Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett), he did smoke and drink and was a man people liked to be around. He told jokes, he was the life of the party, and was able to be around other alpha personalities and get them to work together because of his sense of humor and success.”
It’s with this in mind that the period-era clothes, music, style of dance, smoking habits, and the feel of an old briefcase weighed down by law books helped Boseman find the cadence, posture, and rhythms that gave his young Marshall a distinct swagger. It’s not the portrait of a saint. Director Reggie Hudlin said that’s what’s needed now.
“There was a paradigm – for shorthand, let’s call it the Sidney Poitier paradigm – which is a man who, despite hardships and suffering, maintains his dignity and humanity. Which was the image we needed at the time,” he said. “The new paradigm says you are going to be successful, politically uncompromised, and culturally uncompromised. People get scared and they want to keep these people on a pedestal – no, no, no. Let’s tell the whole truth about the man. Thurgood Marshall was not a minister, he was not Martin Luther King – he’s got his raw sense of humor, he fights, flirts. We’re fully embracing it.”
For Hudlin, Boseman’s big-screen presence is an important touchstone for a modern portrayal of black empowerment.
“[Chadwick] understands the connection between ‘Marshall’ and ‘Black Panther’ – as far apart as a fictional and historical character can be – is they are lawmakers,” said Hudlin. “And when you look at the greatest heroes of the history of black America, they are almost all lawbreakers. They are breaking unjust laws in pursuit of justice – Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X – but at a certain point, you can’t just fight the power; you have to be the power. That’s the next level of empowerment for us.”
Boseman doesn’t disagree with the connection Hudlin makes between the roles, telling IndieWire that his performance in “Black Panther” benefitted from his study of Thurgood Marshall.
“What’s great about Black Panther, he’s not just a superhero who’s dealing with saving the day,” said Boseman. “He’s the king, in some ways judge and jury, even in [‘Captain America: Civil War’] he’s sort of deciding if [someone] lives or dies. He’s a character who deals with the political and social implications of his decisions, and so I think there is a bit of Thurgood Marshall in there.”
The ability to defy the limitations of space and time is often a distinguishing characteristic for a superhero. In this sense, Boseman jokes that Marshall was also part superhero in how the NAACP’s dispatched him as a secret weapon around the country.
“‘Oh, there’s disaster happening in Columbia, Tennessee, and it’s happening in Birmingham, and it’s happening Arkansas and Texas, how can I save all these people?'” said Boseman. “But that’s what Thurgood Marshall really did. It’s unreal.”