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Before he became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall moved from town to town as part of the NAACP to represent black defendants in a justice system rampant with discrimination. Jeffrey Brown sits down with director Reginald Hudlin and actor Chadwick Boseman to discuss their new film “Marshall,” and how they captured the iconic judge in his youth.
And now a new glimpse into the early career of one of the country's most famous legal scholars.
Jeffrey Brown has this look at "Marshall," in theaters now.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN, Actor, "Thurgood Marshall": You gentlemen are making a big mistake.
He was a man who would make history as the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
This here is Mr. Thurgood Marshall. The man is an attorney. You will treat with him the respect that he deserves.
But the new film "Marshall," based on real events in 1941, gives us a young Thurgood Marshall, lawyer for the then-fledgling NAACP, going from town to town to represent black defendants in a justice system rampant with discrimination.
And this Marshall, played by Chadwick Boseman and directed by Reginald Hudlin, is full of flash and swagger.
What's you got in here, cement?
Guns. Books, Mr. Friedman.
REGINALD HUDLIN, Director, "Marshall": He loved sarcasm. He smoked. He drank. He flirts. You know, he's a real kind of rock 'n' roll guy. And what I really love is that young people in particular see this depiction of this period of his life, and they go, oh, he's that kind of guy.
And then they say, well, I could be that. I could be a flawed guy who does the right thing.
The film centers on a real case in Connecticut, in which Marshall was asked to defended Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur accused of raping Eleanor Strubing, the wife of his wealthy white employer.
It's a great legal thriller that happens to star the greatest attorney in American history.
The NAACP, we are not like most lawyers. We only represent innocent, people accused because of their race. That's our mission. You understand?
So, I need to know this. Look at me now. Did you do what they said you did?
I never touched that woman.
The stakes are very high. When we start the film, Thurgood Marshall has just lost a case in Oklahoma. Not only does this mean that an innocent man is going to jail for life, but the donations to the NAACP rise and fall based on whether he wins or loses cases.
Yes, and that's a very interesting aspect of this whole thing, isn't it?
It wasn't just about the individual case. It was the larger cause and the need for raising money.
Right. So we think of NAACP as this venerable institution, over 100 years old. But the fact is, it was a fledgling organization that could go away very easily.
So, Thurgood basically has to win this case, for the sake of the organization, for the sake of the community.
Through the trial, we see glimpses of the towering legal figure Marshall would become.
Here in America, our differences are not supposed to matter. Here, we are promised equal protection under the law. There's nothing complicated about that. That promise has not been realized, not even close.
I asked actor Chadwick Boseman about the key to capturing Marshall.
The great thing is that you do have the destination. You know what he's going to become.
Yes, even if he doesn't know it at the moment.
Even if he doesn't know it at the moment. And so you can't play what he doesn't know.
People like that have a greater sense that you're here to do something. There's something inside of you that must be fulfilled. I did want to give a sense of that, that confidence, that arrogance.
Boseman is no stranger to tackling historical icons. He played baseball's Jackie Robinson in the film "42," and musician James Brown in "Get On Up."
But Marshall posed a unique challenge because of the real-life circumstances of the trial. As an out-of-state attorney, Marshall was barred by the judge from speaking in court.
That instead fell to his less experienced partner, Samuel Friedman, played by Josh Gad, a Jewish insurance lawyer and initially unwilling accomplice.
So you, as an actor, are playing a guy who's famous for his ability to talk and persuade people, but he can't do it in this case.
I think, when I was reading the script, at first, I was like, wait a minute, how does this get resolved, and I get to give my, you know, closing statements at the end of the movie?
You wanted to make your big courtroom speech?
Had to, you know? But the more I read it, I realized that this was the exact obstacle that would make the movie interesting.
The truth of the matter is, you're acting when you're silent. Your nonverbals are dialogue, subtext. And that's actually just as hard, if not harder, than having the huge speech at the end or the closing statements.
"Marshall" was filmed in 2016, amid heightened racial tensions around the country. Hudlin says echoes of past and present are inevitable. Most of all, he wanted to portray a man making a difference.
I would say, you know, Thurgood ultimately was a saint, not an angel, but a saint.
Yes. What's the difference?
Well, an angel kind of implies perfection. A saint means, you know, you push through your humanity. You do something greater than.
In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the 96th justice of the United States Supreme Court.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.
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