Thurgood Marshall’s life story is ample enough to fill its own extended film franchise. From his accomplishments as a civil rights lawyer to his victory in Brown vs. Board of Education and his time on the U.S. Supreme Court, a proper big screen biography would stretch a film’s running time beyond any practical length. For that reason, Marshall, the new film from Open Road and director Reginald Hudlin, decides to focus on a specific case from Marshall’s days as a lawyer for the NAACP. In the film, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) arrives in a small Connecticut town to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black driver who has been accused of sexual assault and attempted murder by his employer. Working alongside a lawyer with no previous experience in criminal law, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), Marshall tackles a headline-grabbing case with high stakes for all involved. Boxoffice spoke with Hudlin to get a closer look at his approach to the project and the inspiration he derives from Thurgood Marshall’s legacy.
How did this project come across your desk?
The producer, Paula Wagner, sent the script from the daughter of Sam Friedman. An attorney based in Connecticut [Michael Koskoff] decided to restructure the story, because he knew about this legendary story. He wrote a script, a first-timer, and worked with his son, who was a screenwriter. He sent it to Sam Friedman’s daughter for her OK. She loved it and sent it to her college roommate Paula Wagner. Paula and I had known each other for years. She said, “Hey, do you know about Thurgood Marshall?” I was like, “My hero, Thurgood Marshall? Yes!”
I’ve talked to so many people—both American and foreign—who were not familiar with the history. One of my main goals was to make a movie that was really accessible whether the person seeing had the knowledge of the history or not.
You mentioned that Thurgood Marshall is a hero of yours. What was the influence and impact of his legacy, for you as a person and an artist, that you had in mind when you approached the project?
When I think about Thurgood Marshall? We have the American Constitution, which is this beautiful but flawed document. It says all men are created equal, with equal rights under the law. These are great, great notions. But it was flawed from the beginning, because of slavery—all the accommodations made in the founding of the American government for slavery and for racists. So here is Thurgood Marshall, who more than anyone fought to fix those flaws in the American legal system. He made America grow up and live up to its promise as a nation, by truly making America a place where all people can be given equal justice under law. We still have a ways to go, but there’s a lot to be thankful for because of his efforts.
How difficult was it just focusing on the story at hand, instead of trying to do a more overarching view of his life and career?
Every part of his life is fascinating. So yes, there is a temptation to want to do a cradle-to-grave biopic. But I thought it would be more engaging for audiences. For me, when I look at the movie, it’s a legal thriller and it’s a western [Laughs.] He’s this guy who goes from town to town. He’s the marshal. He delivers justice.
So I felt, “Well, let’s just do one case, so we can take our time and really tell the story in depth.” And that would inspire people to know more about him and read about him. Understand this is the origin story of a superhero.
What sort of stylistic elements did you want to bring into the film?
The score is a good example. You can do this huge symphonic score that movies like this normally have. But this is the peak of the jazz age—the era of Duke Ellington, one of America’s greatest composers. We have this Harlem-based hero. Why wouldn’t we have America’s music, jazz, be the sound of the score of this film? It made it cooler, more interesting, more expressive to do something that was different.
Was there anything you wanted to avoid in your approach to the story? Was there a movie you purposely didn’t want to make when tackling the film?
For me, it’s very easy for movies like this to become what I call “medicine.” You may not want to take medicine because it doesn’t taste good, but it’s good for you. I hate when the sell pitch of a movie is, “Oh, you should see this, this is important.” Our movie is important, but I like when people go, “Man, I can’t wait to see that again! That movie was fun!”
When people express that they had a good time watching the movie—they laughed more than they expected, then they cried, then they were inspired—when people tell me about the full range of emotions they felt while watching a movie, that’s the thing that’s most inspiring to me. Because it’s not an obligation. People work all week, right? You work really hard. People take time to get a sitter, buy popcorn, pay to see a movie. I think you better get your money back—and then some! That was my goal when I made the film.
How did Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad fall into their roles?
Chad and I had met previously. When he became cast as the Black Panther, we started talking because I wrote the Black Panther for many years. We were just kind of clicking creatively, and I knew we wanted to work together. Then when I read this script, I thought, “I need a world-class actor, Chadwick is that world-class actor, and we really have fun together.” He was not looking to play another historical character, but when he read the script, he was like, “Wow, I have to be in this. Even though I’ve played historical characters, I’ve never played a character like this before.” So it’s great to see him doing something he’s never done before.
With Josh Gad, I wanted a real contrast between the Sam Friedman character and the Thurgood Marshall character. I also wanted to find an actor who you won’t necessarily think of in a dramatic role. Josh, obviously he is well-known as a fantastic comedic actor. But I knew there was much more to him than what was seen on the screen, although he had this incredible body of work already. When we met, we talked about politics for 20 minutes. Then I said, “Okay, we should talk about the movie.” But even at that point—his intelligence, his good taste—I knew he was the absolute perfect person for the role. It was an absolute joy working with him.
What role did research play when putting together the period aspects of the production?
Each department really went in. All of us were reading biographies, reading the news accounts of the actual incident. I remember Ruth Carter at our production office—all of the walls were decorated with research: period costumes, advertising and pictures of clothing for each of the characters. She had walls and walls of stuff.
Chadwick is a Howard graduate, the same school that Thurgood went to. So he already knew about Thurgood, but he became an absolute expert. Things he references, like Charles Hamilton Houston, the guy who ran the Howard Law School—who is a legendary person himself. He deserves a movie all by himself. Or at the end of the film, when you see Benjamin Crump as Alexander Looby, who was sort of the Thurgood Marshall of the South. They worked together on a lot of cases. So there are a lot of Easter eggs for folks in the film, rewarding their depth of knowledge about the life of Thurgood Marshall.