Actor Chadwick Boseman On His New Role As 'Marshall'

Originally published on November 9, 2017 9:58 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally, we have one more film to tell you about that opened Friday. It focuses on a little-known moment in the career of the late civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. Long before Marshall became the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court or even argued the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, He took on an exhausting run of difficult cases, challenging the racist practices and attitudes that shaped the lives of African-Americans. The new film "Marshall" tells the story of one of those early cases in 1941, in Connecticut, where a black man, a chauffeur, was accused of raping his white socialite employer. Chadwick Boseman, whom you might remember as Jackie Robinson in the film "42," plays the young Thurgood Marshall as he takes on the defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARSHALL")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Thurgood Marshall) The NAACP, we're not like most lawyers. We only represent innocent people, 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?

STERLING K. BROWN: (As Joseph Spell) I never touched that woman.

BOSEMAN: (As Thurgood Marshall) OK, Joseph. You've got lawyers now.

MARTIN: I spoke with Chadwick Boseman from Chicago member station WBEZ, and I started by asking him to tell me about that period in Marshall's life. And I need to let you know that owing to the topic, some might be disturbed by some of the language.

BOSEMAN: At this point in his career, he's essentially become the sole lawyer for the NAACP. He's not famous. He has argued some pretty high-profile cases. He's just sort of coming into his own in terms of being known as the attorney that is fighting for civil rights or human rights throughout the nation. This particular case is one where the stakes are pretty high because if they lose this case, the NAACP will lose its donors and probably cease to exist, number one.

And number two, the domestic workers throughout the North and some in the South are being fired by their bosses because, essentially, they don't trust having a chauffeur or having a butler, someone who is in the household who may rape white women. So it becomes a thing of, this has to be rectified in order to save the jobs of black people at that time because you can't really work. So it was important to solve this case, to find this man innocent, to save the jobs of many other people.

MARTIN: And talk a little bit about the role that Josh Gad plays as your co-counsel, and explain why he needed a co-counsel.

BOSEMAN: So because a lot of times these cases were happening - and this is throughout the South as well - in places where maybe Thurgood Marshall or whatever attorney later on that the NAACP sent was not part of the bar. Maybe they weren't part of the bar in that state. They had to have a local attorney take on the case as well. So Sam Friedman represents this in Bridgeport, Conn. He is the local attorney that must bring the case before a Connecticut judge. And what happens in this case is when Thurgood Marshall shows up, usually he would be able to speak on behalf of the client, but this Bridgeport, Conn., judge basically gags Thurgood Marshall when he gets there. So it's the equivalent of trying to win a boxing match with your hands tied behind your back.

And for me, as an actor, when I first read this, I was like, wait a minute. I thought I was playing Thurgood Marshall. I thought I was going to have like these big courtroom speeches and, you know, I was going to be able to like use my Shakespearean training, my classical training. And that's not the case because he's silenced. So it becomes a really difficult task to win this case without being able to speak. So Sam Friedman becomes essentially a student, a protege. He's never tried a criminal case before. He's, you know, essentially only argued cases that were insurance, you know. It's totally out of his realm. And so Thurgood Marshall has to essentially teach him how to try a criminal case.

MARTIN: There's so much going on here that we could talk about, but a couple things. First of all, I just want to ask about how you understood Thurgood Marshall. I mean, he went on to argue 32 cases before the Supreme Court, including, of course, Brown v. Board of Ed, first African-American justice on the high court. This is all before that, right? So - but you still portray him as a person with a lot of, I don't know, style and a lot of self-possession. But it's also a lot of pressure. I mean, and the film kind of makes the case that this did take a personal toll on him and the people who were important to him. So I'm just wondering how you understood him in this and how you went about thinking about who you were going to be to portray him.

BOSEMAN: For me, the research, he was brought into a place where he was educated at Howard. He was educated in Baltimore, educated at Lincoln University. A lot of that stuff affected him in a particular way. He was actually born in Harlem and moved back to Baltimore. And he moved back to Harlem with his wife, Buster, and had that sort of Harlem Renaissance period affect who he was. So all of that is where he's coming into this with. He's a man about town. He's a man who enjoys life. He's a man who could have sort of the comfort abilities of this renaissance. And he is putting that on the line to go fight in places where he's not wanted.

MARTIN: But I'm asking you how you figured out how to play that line because you didn't grow up in that era where you were - where people thought that you should cross the street when they walked on it, you know what I mean? Like that level of - I'm just wondering how you figured that out for yourself.

BOSEMAN: I don't know if that's true. You know, I'm from Anderson, S.C., but I grew up in the South. So I know what it is to ride to school and have Confederate flags flying from trucks in front of me and behind me, to see a parking lot full of people with Confederate flags and know what that means. I've been stopped by police for no reason. I've been called boy and nigger and everything else that you could imagine. Along with the great hospitality that is in the South, that is part of it.

And so I understand when it is to exist in that space and find your manhood. And so I don't think that that is a thing that has gone completely foreign to our existence right now. So part of my, I guess, ability to face it is because I faced it. I failed at facing it. I get the opportunity in playing the character to relive those things and do things a different way.

MARTIN: That's Chadwick Boseman. He plays a young Thurgood Marshall, the man who would later go on to become the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court, who argued some 30 cases before the Supreme Court before that. He's the star of the new film "Marshall," which came out on Friday. And Chadwick Boseman joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Chadwick Boseman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOSEMAN: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.