Thurgood Marshall’s haberdashery was his most significant trait according to the new bio-pic Marshall — out-flashing his successful argument before the Supreme Court that resulted in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that outlawed public-school segregation. The film mentions Marshall’s tenure as a Supreme Court Justice (1967 to 1991) only as a footnote in the end credits. For its fashion-consciousness — and as a warning — the movie really should have an exclamation point in its title: MARSHALL! like the hyperbole identifying a one-word Broadway musical.
When first seen in 1941 at age 33, Marshall (portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) is like a song-and-dance man, evoking the old-time description “stepping out of a bandbox.” He’s beautifully tailored in a navy-blue double-breasted suit with diagonal brown pinstripes that fan out on the lapels across his chest, and his indigo fedora is wrapped with a tan satin band that color-coordinates his self-presentation. The image suggests fastidiousness as well as vanity — visual proof of a black man flaunting his self-esteem during the Jim Crow era.
This flashy introduction is almost comical. It certainly has a comic-book bravura, conveying Marshall’s historical significance with the same enthusiasm that a cape-wearing superhero expresses for an adolescent. Marshall’s director, Reginald Hudlin, is best known for such upwardly mobile comedies as House Party and Boomerang as well as his collaboration with cartoonist Aaron McGruder on the animated TV series The Boondocks. Hudlin and McGruder also worked on the 2004 graphic novel Birth of a Nation, which sideswiped the 1915 D. W. Griffith film by creating a satirical fantasy about black political history and empowerment.
Hudlin’s approach to our nation’s political record signifies a different kind of seriousness than that of the 1991 TV miniseries Separate but Equal, in which Sidney Poitier portrayed Marshall much like Poitier himself — as a paragon of virtue, probity, and historical import. Hudlin’s perspective reflects hip-hop-generation brashness — and not a little carelessness — by placing social history on the same level as popular culture. So Hudlin’s hip-hop-influenced view not only casts Marshall as a pioneering lawyer who took cases as part of his work with the NAACP’s legal defense team; it also depicts him as a synthesis of post-civil-rights aspirations, and it looks back on that history through a pop-culture lens.
Boseman, who made history on his own through vivid portrayals of Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (Get On Up), makes a fine clotheshorse for displaying the sartorial splendor of 20th-century jazz musicians, with their stylish dress and wavy-haired cosmetology. But this performance of Marshall has too much smirking and know-it-all simpering. He switches a car radio to a jazz station playing “Keep A-Knockin’ (but You Can’t Come In)”; he struts through bigoted courtrooms carrying a tan leather briefcase that matches his full-length gray gabardine overcoat. And the moment when a pudgy Jewish civil attorney (Sam Friedman, played by Joshua Gad) carts Marshall’s luggage recalls that famous scene from In the Heat of the Night in which Rod Steiger acted as porter to Sidney Poitier, deliberately — comically — changing and challenging social stereotypes.
All this cultural resonance should buttress the story of Marshall’s personal development into a public figure of irrefutable substance, yet the film treats historical matters flippantly. During a trial in Hugo, Okla., Marshall is shown wielding state’s evidence — a billy club dubbed “a nigger-beater” — to startle the courtroom. But it’s also Hudlin’s attempt to startle the audience; Marshall swings the weapon impudently, like Beyoncé with her baseball bat in Lemonade. Hudlin mixes history with pop myth just as impudently. This approach would be dismissable except that it’s also part of the currently fashionable ahistorical attitude toward black Americans’ personal and public progress.
Marshall’s narrative centers on a Connecticut-based trial of a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) accused of raping a white socialite (Kate Hudson). But rather than clarify the issues of guilt and justice that have been gummed up in recent Michael Brown and Eric Garner circuses, Hudlin and screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff overcomplicate their own premise to follow the NAACP precept “to defend those falsely accused of crime.” The trial scenes and flashback testimonies have a cheap, Lifetime-movie take on truth and ambiguous events.
Despite briefly mentioning Richard Wright’s novel Native Son — which was an important exploration of the idea of black innocence as well as an exposé of the nexus between black victims and their victimizing social reformers — the film neglects Wright’s view of Communist exploitation of black grievance. (An attempt to draw a parallel between Marshall’s struggle and Friedman’s awareness of the Holocaust is itself exploitive.) There’s no account given to the complicated facts of Marshall’s own quasi-conservative political views or the NAACP’s ultimate devolution into an ineffectual, leaderless organization now manipulated by today’s extreme progressives.
The sight of him wearing a beige bouttonière along with a red breast-pocket hanky means that he’s king of Ebony magazine’s Fashion Fair.
Instead, Hudlin relies upon his personal fascination for measuring black American history by cartoonish, heroic exploits. One giveaway is a name-dropping scene of Marshall out on the town at Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse, where he runs into Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston (the worse scene of its kind since Woody Allen’s name-dropping Midnight in Paris). It’s an Obama-era trap that black progress is so often quantified in terms of celebrity.
As a historical figure, Hudlin’s Marshall is a concatenation of Shaft, Super Fly, and that most sartorially resplendent of all blaxploitation films, Willie Dynamite. It’s part of the trite depiction of black American aspiration and achievement made by today’s pop historians. To portray Marshall, a trailblazing jurist, as a pimp-slick sharp dresser who showboats before the mid 20th century’s bland, dull-witted legal system, is a post-Obama distortion. This Marshall isn’t merely on the right side of history, the sight of him wearing a beige bouttonière along with a red breast-pocket hanky means that he’s king of Ebony magazine’s Fashion Fair. Eddie Murphy’s 1999 animated TV show The PJs, with its housing projects superintendant named Thurgood, was a worthier fitting tribute.