When I saw the first previews for Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin, I knew I was going to hate it. A dark-skinned actor playing Thurgood Marshall? Blasphemous, problematic, revisionist, and every other insult that my woke vernacular could shout. I was ready to watch this film and rip it to shreds and drag it for filth because it’s 2017 and we should all understand by now the role colorism played during the fight for civil rights.
The first time I watched it, I hated it for those exact reasons. As a biopic, Marshall is terribly flawed with context that is cringe-worthy. Watching a dark-skinned Black man assimilate through the legal system with great bravado while discussing going to Howard University and being apart of the NAACP was uncomfortable. My grandparents told me the stories, and we often forget them. Colorism was just as much of a problem back then as it is now.
The brown paper bag tactics of inclusion within our own community’s elite circles (which included HBCUs, Black greek life, and the NAACP) was well documented and known. Racial passing as a light-skinned Black person during that era was a privilege and played a major role in how some thrived and others didn’t. I can only imagine that Thurgood Marshall himself knew that he was leveraging his light-skin privilege to help other Blacks who were marginalized far worse than he was.
That’s what made me personally admire him the most. Marshall could have just assimilated and turned his back on the rest of the community like many that looked like him did for survival. But he didn’t — he was courageous and his advocacy broke color barriers and permanently changed laws across the country.
This film ignores this altogether and fails at providing any kind of educational substance for many, like my 14-year old brother, who will be seeing any visual representation of Thurgood Marshall in cinema for the first time. If you want to see a better idea of who the real Marshall was watch Thurgood, a 2011 television film that brilliantly casted Laurence Fishburne in the title role.
So what is this film good for if not a biopic? Answer: A historical “what if” escape that is enjoyable if you don’t take it seriously.
The second time I watched Marshall with my woke-button on low, it was enjoyable and fun. If you ignore the fact that the incredibly charming Chadwick Boseman is playing a historical figure, he’s a knockout. You can’t ignore the level of wit and versatility that often gets lost in historical films set during the Civil Rights era.
His quirky white sidekick, played by Josh Gad, compliments the more frank Boseman. Sterling K. Brown can do no wrong as he plays perhaps the most believable character both historically and imaginatively in the film — a dark-skinned Black man who fears for his life in a system that is set up against him.
Hudlin, who has directed hit ’90s comedies such as House Party and Boomerang, isn’t the first person I would have chosen to direct a Marshall biopic. But when you realize that he also produced Django Unchained, you can view Marshall as a well-crafted alternate history where the dark-skinned Black man is a legal hero during an era where many of them weren’t given the same access and opportunity as Thurgood.
The surprise cameo at the end (seriously, it’s a shocker) brings this point home. If you plan to support this film because “it’s our history,” don’t — because it’s not. Just go see it for an escape and some well needed laughs at a time where we need them the most.
Ernest Owens is the Editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly. He has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and ernestowens.com.