The actor discusses his latest film Marshall about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice and one of his career-defining cases.
Actor Chadwick Boseman
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight a conversation with Chadwick Boseman. The versatile actor best known for his portrayals of baseball legend, Jackie Robinson, and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, is out with a new project called “Marshall”.
In it, he portrays a young Thurgood Marshall long before he sat on the U.S. Supreme Court or claimed victory in Brown v. Board of Education. The film explores one of Marshall’s greatest challenges in his early days as an attorney for the NAACP.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Chadwick Boseman coming up right now.
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Tavis: Actor Chadwick Boseman is best known for his portrayals of baseball legend, Jackie Robinson, in the film, “42”, and James Brown in “Get On Up”. He is also the star of the highly anticipated Marvel movie, “Black Panther”.
But his current project is called “Marshall”. It centers around Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, of course, and one of his career-defining cases. Before our conversation with Chadwick, let’s take a look at a clip from “Marshall”.
Tavis: I know this ain’t the first time you’ve heard this, but you’re just cornering the market on our heroes [laugh]. You’re just cornering the market.
Chadwick Boseman: Hey, it’s open for everybody else to do it too [laugh].
Tavis: Not as long as you’re in town because you keep sucking them up. There, obviously, must be some sort of joy. Because I think it’s more than just coincidental that you’re playing these heroes. What’s that about for you?
Boseman: The process is always enjoyable and it’s scary at the same time because you know there is so much expectation when you play someone that is someone else’s hero, when you play someone else’s father or grandfather.
But the process is always so rewarding because you know that you’re giving people a sense of history. People will go and then do their own research and find what is exactly like the movie and what is not like the movie. They’ll find the other in this case or other cases that Thurgood Marshall might have tried.
You know, a lot of people know Brown v. Board of Education and they know that he was the first African American Supreme Court Justice, but they don’t know the full extent of his impact. So the fact that you’re giving people a glimpse inside and you know that they will also get this other wealth of things from it, that is a beautiful thing as well.
Tavis: I can’t imagine — I’m gonna put you on the spot for a second, but I know you can handle it. I can’t imagine that you play characters like these and you, long after they say that’s a wrap, don’t take something away from these characters.
Tavis: Let me put you on the spot. What’d you take away from Jackie Robinson?
Boseman: Oh, I mean, it’s funny that you say it that way because I find myself pulling from not just these characters, but from my parents. You know, when I need to do certain things, I pull from my father, I pull from my mother, I pull from my uncles, I pull from my brothers.
But these characters actually have given me another avenue of things that I can pull from, so there’s a certain amount of courage that you get from playing Jackie Robinson that you didn’t have before.
You can walk into spaces that you maybe think you don’t belong, but you’re gonna go anyway because that is exactly what he did, you know. I think there’s a certain amount of providence that he had that allowed him to deal with the situations that he had to undergo.
So you find yourself checking yourself for how you’re living because he had to be perfect, you know. He had to be spotless in certain cases and I fall short, but I’m trying. You know, James Brown, there’s a certain audacity [laugh] that comes from playing James Brown that I end up saying — there’ll be certain moments and all my friends know it.
When I have to say things that are difficult, I might have said it before, but I wouldn’t have done it in that way. So somehow I can say things now that are uncomfortable or that will make people upset and now people don’t get upset because I throw a little James Brown in there [laugh]. Because it’s always like it could have been worse than it was [laugh], you know?
Tavis: Oh, yeah [laugh]. I can see that.
Boseman: It could’ve been worse.
Tavis: I can see that, yeah.
Boseman: I would say for Thurgood Marshall, you know, I walked into this not knowing who he was and not knowing there’s an audacity that he had as well and there is a certain swagger that he had in order to walk in situations.
He exists in a space where you’re like, “Did he just do that? Did he actually just…” You know, there are stories about him arguing cases in the south and people would come and they just wanted to see him do it.
You know, no matter what side of it they were on, they wanted to see this Negro lawyer argue this case and it was entertaining. I think there’s the sense of flair, the sense of the dramatic that he was able to always create and it served him well.
So all of those things, I think, there’s a certain amount of selflessness I think he had because he could have lived in a comfortable place to a certain degree, but he was driven by this goal to make America better than it was.
Tavis: There’s an old adage that we see peoples’ glory, but we don’t know their back story.
Tavis: We see the glory, but we don’t know the back story. When you get a chance to play somebody like Thurgood Marshall, what do you come to appreciate about the back story of any person who’s great, the part that we don’t see, the part that we don’t know before they wind up on the Supreme Court or whatever their apex moment is?
Boseman: Yeah. The thing that — and I always wanted the younger audience to know this about Thurgood Marshall — he wasn’t the best student growing up. He had to find his way once he got to college.
You know, he was the guy that missed out on class because he wanted to party. He was the guy that spent more time playing cards and drinking bourbon and smoking cigarettes and all that stuff [laugh]. That was him. You know what I’m saying? He was more focused on the fraternity than he was — you know, he was the practical joker. That’s who he was.
So I appreciate that because a lot of times people get caught up in how we’re tested in school, how the educational system sort of values one student over another. I’ve taught students. I’ve taught students theater, taught them studies.
It’s like I always look at that student and I go, “Okay, he’s smart. He’s the one that’s actually smarter than everybody else, but he’s too smart for his own good.” So I appreciate the fact that Thurgood Marshall was that guy and he actually found his way and then he found a way to use it in his practice.
In his service, he found how to use like that’s the reason why actually, you know, he could get all of the alpha personalities in one room, all the best attorneys who would argue on his particular side of a case, hear their differences of opinion, and battle it out. Like iron sharpen iron, he could galvanize that group of people together because of that personality, because people wanted to be in the room with him.
They wanted to have the cigarette with him after, they wanted to have the bourbon. And they wanted to be around his personality while they did those things, so they would do it for nothing, you know, just to be there.
Tavis: There are two questions that are twirling in my head right now. Let me see if I can get one of them out before I forget the other one. The first is how a guy, to use your word — I think you’re right — with that much swag husbands himself enough to accept that in this particular case in the movie, he can’t even talk in court?
As brilliant as this Negro is, he’s coldblooded. You’re right. Everybody wants to be in the room with him, but in this particular — I don’t want to give the movie away — but in this case, he — you know, this is where Josh Gad comes in, of course, Sam Friedman — but how does Marshall deal with not being able to talk in court?
Boseman: Well, first of all, it was hard for me as the actor playing him [laugh] because when…
Tavis: And not say nothing, yeah.
Boseman: Well, because when they give you the script and you’re supposed to play Thurgood Marshall, you’re like, “Oh, well, at least I’m gonna have my chance to work on my speeches. I can use some of my Shakespeare. I can use some of my…”
Tavis: No, brother, you’re not gonna talk in court.
Boseman: Yes, they don’t get to talk in court.
Tavis: You don’t have to talk in court, yeah [laugh].
Boseman: I was like, “Wait a minute.” I guess it was like 28. I was like, “I don’t get to talk in the courtroom?” “No, we’re not doing this.” You know, for me I think that was — you know, there’s always stakes in a story and with each character. The stakes are so high in this that he cannot afford to let that ego get in the way. If he loses this case, the NAACP loses its funding, you know.
Domestic workers are being fired left and right because of what Joseph Spell was accused of, white people were firing all the Black people that worked for them because somebody might get raped, something might get stolen. You can’t trust them anymore. So, you know, it also shows the demonization of what one Black person did at that time and even sometimes it does today.
But he couldn’t afford to get stuck in his ego because the stakes were bigger than him. The stakes were, you know, his decisions. He was the only attorney for the NAACP based upon budget who was traveling around dealing with cases all around the country. So him getting in his ego was detrimental to Black people around the nation.
Tavis: Since you mentioned the brother who’s on trial played brilliantly by Sterling K. Brown — we can do this without giving the movie away — you can tell what the case is and why Marshall is representing him.
Boseman: He’s accused of raping a white woman…
Tavis: His employer.
Boseman: His employer, and it’s not the south. It’s in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but I think that’s a key part of this movie is that — and it’s one of the reasons why you tell the story — is that it’s in the north. So it pinpoints racism in the north where it’s not supposed to exist.
Yet you find it being very similar because you see Thurgood Marshall, the other parts of the movie, he’s in the south and you get to make that comparison. But, yes, it’s rape.
Tavis: I don’t want to give this away, but there are a couple of cameos in this thing that are breathtaking. I was like, “Is that who I think that is?” A couple of those cameos were pretty amazing. I’ll leave it at that [laugh].
The other thing I’m curious to get your take on, Chadwick, is what you learned, if anything, from playing Marshall, back to his swag, about the success he had talking to, engaging with, navigating through and around white folk.
Here we are all these years later and you look at all this happening in our country right now, people are still struggling with how to have a conversation about A, B, C or D. And, at his best, Marshall knew how to talk to both sides. Just give me some sense of what you saw in the way he navigated that, the white side of town.
Boseman: Yeah. To me, one of the most important things that you get from watching this movie and from playing the role is there’s a fearlessness that he had with the truth. I think he believed — and, mind you, he was a good storyteller, so he knew what a lie was [laugh]. He knew what a lie was.
But when it came down to it in situations where a case was being argued, where laws were being passed, how we live in society is dealt with, because you have the founding fathers who give us our Constitution. But Thurgood Marshall is the person who essentially went around arguing the smaller aspects and details of whether the truths and the quality and justice would be held up.
So he was willing to walk into the room and speak truth to power and he didn’t care whether he lost or not. And I think that’s the key factor is he’s the guy, if you talk about swagger, that wants the ball at the end of the game and wants to take the shot.
You know, if there was another attorney that was gonna argue a case, he was — there’s the stories about him being upset about the fact that he didn’t get to go argue a certain case. So he’s Kobe Bryant. He’s the guy that wants the shot at the end of the game.
So you see a man who, on one level of the court system as an attorney, lost a lot of cases in order to get to the Supreme Court and argue cases in front of greater minds, in front of men who are seeing the world from a perspective that is larger.
And in that instance, he won 29 out of 32 times, and I think there’s a great lesson in that. One, that you have to lose in order to win. And, two, that you cannot be afraid to lose. You have to put yourself in situations where it’s all or nothing.
And I think he believed in what the truth does on the other side to the person internally, no matter what their race is. And right now in this divisive climate, people have taken sides and somehow they’ve kind of forgotten that. On the other side, the truth still does the same thing inside that person and changes them.
Tavis: Part of what — I’m glad you said that. Now it’s getting good here. Part of what we’re wrestling with, though, is that Marshall was clear about what the truth is.
Tavis: We live in a world now…
Boseman: Where people are not clear about it [laugh].
Tavis: And not only not clear about it, but people determine for themselves what the truth is. The truth is what I determine it to be. And when you see that from the Oval Office on down that people determine what they think the truth is and they tell you this is the truth when there’s all kind of data and evidence to the contrary, that’s what’s so disturbing for me.
It’s hard to have a conversation. It’s hard to create a democratic space for us to have authentic dialog if somebody’s gonna tell you something is true that you know is a lie.
Boseman: Well, you can only do that to a certain point. Like we can only do that, we can only deny, for instance, that there’s climate change to a certain extent. What the reality is, you know, how many hurricanes have we had in this season so far? And the reality is, you know, yeah, the ice is melting, the polar caps is melting and diseases are being unfrozen and we’re gonna see what happens.
You know, you can only deny nature for so long. So there’s certain things when you’re talking about as much as our human minds can lie and create its own truth, at a certain point, you know, nature comes into play and that truth is it has a natural identity. Humanity has a natural identity and you can’t lie about that.
Tavis: And that still doesn’t stop folk from presenting alternative facts, yeah [laugh].
Boseman: Yeah, from trying, yeah, from trying.
Tavis: Nonetheless, yeah. It is impossible — I’m back to these characters that you’ve played, Thurgood Marshall, most recently. But I’m thinking of Jackie Robinson, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. I’m thinking of James Brown. I’m thinking of Thurgood Marshall.
It is impossible, to my mind at least, to be that great, to be that iconic, and not take a risk, to your point, a friend of mine says, “To have it all, you gotta be willing to risk it all”, so they’re taking great risk. But for all that they accomplish, there’s also something they sacrifice. What did Marshall sacrifice for all that he accomplished?
Boseman: Well, you see parts of it in the movie. His family life, you know. He was actually born in Harlem. He was born in Harlem, although his parents had been in Baltimore before that. They moved to Harlem just before he was born and then he went back to Harlem, I think, at age six.
Tavis: Back to Baltimore?
Boseman: Yeah. And then later on, he goes back to live. So he’s in Harlem and, you know, Harlem, there’s a renaissance. There is a beautiful culture, he’s around all these beautiful people, artists, coming from everywhere just to collaborate together. He had a beautiful wife. He left that to go fight for freedom and justice and equality for people around the country.
And if each person thinks about their respective lives and the comfortability of their lives, not many of us would go to some rural town that does not have those same — you know, like “Well, do they have a Trader Joe’s there? Do they have a Whole Foods? Do they have my vegan spot? Do they have this or that…” No, I’m not going there. You know, it’s the same thing.
So he gave up what would be, you know, the American dream in Harlem because it existed in its own way there to go do this. And it’s like I think about myself and, again, I feel like I can never measure up to the men I played. Do I measure up to them? You know, I’m doing my best…
Tavis: But that’s why I respect you so much. You take these giants, man, and you try to bring them down to earth. I’m like Chadwick’s a bad boy to even be attempting that. It would scare me to death. That’s why you like doing it, though.
Boseman: Of course, because you learn from it. You grow from it, you grow from it.
Tavis: When will you know you’ve bit off more than you can chew [laugh]? Or is that not possible for a cat like you?
Boseman: Hey, I probably will at some point. I probably will [laugh].
Tavis: I doubt that…
Boseman: And listen, you got to lose, you got to lose sometimes [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah. not you, not you. I’m betting on your thespian capabilities and possibilities every day. Before I let you get out of here in three minutes, speaking of taking risks, this “Black Panther” project is everywhere.
I was just talking to a friend of mine the other day, a guy named Art Sims, who did the poster for the “Black Panther” thing. He showed it to me just excited about it and I’m glad to see that Art was doing that. But it’s like everybody’s talking about this “Black Panther”.
When you walked onset, we showed you a little picture of Kim, my producer, her nephew walking around Detroit with his little Black Panther suit on. You will have kids…
Boseman: It’s not even Halloween yet.
Tavis: It ain’t even Halloween, yeah [laugh]. And he’s walking around with his Black Panther suit on. I suspect it’s just a matter of time before you have kids all over the country just being proud of…
Boseman: I hope so, yeah. You know, it’s amazing like when we were at Comic-Con and I was seeing — it’s not even just Black kids. It’s white kids, Latino kids, Asian kids, you know, little girls that are Black Panthers. And there’s a lot of great female characters within our movie too which I love. It’s definitely cutting edge. So I’m proud of it, I’m proud of it. I can’t really say more than that, but [laugh]…
Tavis: You see I didn’t ask you nothing about it. You noticed that, right? I didn’t ask you a question.
Boseman: But I’m proud of people, you know. I’m proud of the fact that people are excited about it.
Tavis: Yeah. The balance. You played these real life heroes and now you play this comic book character. That balance must be…
Boseman: They help each other.
Tavis: I was about to say that, yeah, yeah.
Boseman: Yeah. You know, for me as an actor, it gives me balance because you don’t want to be in the super hero suit all the time. And the character itself, I have to say, that Black Panther, he’s not just a super hero. He’s also a head of state. He’s a king, so you get that inside the movie, but at the same time, you know, being able to step into the role of Thurgood Marshall.
Even I did this movie that was just on Netflix. It’s doing really well on Netflix, “Message From the King”. You know, it’s a small Art House thriller. They all help with the process, like the process of playing a real person and a process of playing someone that’s completely fantasy. You’re able to bring truth to the fantasy and fantasy to the real because you’re doing both things.
Tavis: He’s a bad man. He’s playing super heroes and real life heroes. His latest turn is playing Thurgood Marshall in the film, “Marshall”, which you can catch this weekend all around the country. Chadwick, always honored to have you on this program, my friend.
Boseman: Thank you, man.
Tavis: Good to see you, brother.
Boseman: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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