'Marshall'

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Filmmaker ‘over the moon’ to have directed legal drama

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin has always admired Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

“Thurgood Marshall is arguably the greatest lawyer in American history and arguably the most important lawyer of the 20th century. He, more than anyone, took the promise of America, the promise of Constitution that said all men are created equal and brought it into reality,” said Hudlin.

So when the opportunity came up to direct the biopic “Marshall,” the Harvard University alumnus best known for directing 1990’s “House Party” and producing 2012’s “Django Unchained” was “over the moon.”

“Originally, I was brought onto the project as a producer. (Producer) Paula Wagner (1996’s ‘Mission: Impossible’) was talking to a friend of hers, Stephen Bochco (co-creator of ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘L.A. Law’), about directing. Bochco said, ‘You have a director.’ And she said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Reggie. He’s directed so many great courtroom dramas for me – he would kill it.’ She was like, ‘Omigod, you’re right.’ So there it was,” explained Hudlin.

“Marshall” boasts an ensemble cast, including Chadwick Boseman (“42”) as Marshall, Josh Gad (“Frozen”) as Sam Friedman, Golden Globe winner Kate Hudson (“Almost Famous”) as Eleanor Strubing, Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as Lorin Willis, Oscar nominee James Cromwell (“Babe”) as Judge Colin Foster, and Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown (“This is Us”) as Joseph Spell.

“They’re so good, so talented,” said Hudlin. “It was so much fun working with them.”

“Marshall” occurs in 1940, long before Marshall sat on the Supreme Court or claimed victory in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, the case declaring that established separate schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. Here, he’s a rabble-rousing attorney for the NAACP who must defend Spell, a black chauffeur accused by Strubing, his white employer, of rape and attempted murder. The public wants Spell’s head and many black servants are fired by their white employers as a result of this case.

The judge undermines Marshall’s attempts to fight for his client by allowing him to attend Spell’s trial, but not allowing him to speak at this trial. Spell’s defense rests in the hands of Friedman, an insurance lawyer who has no experience in criminal law, let alone any interest in trying this case.

“Thurgood Marshall is not just a civil rights activist, he’s a freedom fighter,” said Boseman. “In most cases, (Marshall) would be the lead lawyer. In this case, the judge tells him that he can work the case, but he cannot speak in court. So Sam Friedman has to be his voice.”

Friedman collaborates with Marshall on Spell’s defense, struggling against fear and prejudice – as well as each other – with Spell’s life on the line. Their relationship is the film’s moral center.

“It’s a terrible burden on Thurgood and a terrible burden on Sam who didn’t want to have anything to do with this case in the first place. So this team is forced into a shotgun marriage and they have a case that, quite frankly, might be unwinnable,” said Hudlin.   

Added Boseman: “It ends up being a sort of mentorship, a buddy movie in some ways. Josh and I had a lot of fun playing around with the buddy movie part of it.”

Largely forgotten by history, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell helped lay the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement between 1954 and 1968. It also informed the legal doctrine of one of America’s greatest jurists.

Hudlin praised Boseman’s performance as Marshall. Boseman is no stranger to playing historical figures, having played baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 2013’s “42” and James Brown – the Godfather of Soul himself – in 2014’s “Get on Up.”

“People say he’s the go-to guy for these biopics. But if you look at James Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall, they’re three completely different human beings and three completely different performances,” explained Hudlin. “What I love about (Boseman) is he is a committed artist and a committed intellectual. That combo is spectacular, which makes him a fantastic collaborator.”

Hudlin and Boseman bonded over the Black Panther, the Marvel Comics character who was the first black super-hero in mainstream comics that debuted in 1966. Boseman played the Panther in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and will reprise this role in the Panther’s eponymous film in 2018. Boseman will also play the Panther again in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” All these films are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“(Boseman) was a fantastic choice. He did a great job,” said Hudlin. “It’s such a brilliant concept. When you look at cartoon characters, I think you measure them by the decade, whether it’s Peanuts, Superman, or Spider-Man. Do they last 75, 100 years? The Black Panther is a brilliant idea and as it’s clearly demonstrated, he’s just getting more popular as time goes on. He’s the black equivalent of Captain America. The same way Captain America represents the best of our nation, that’s what the Black Panther does for Africa.”

Hudlin wrote the Panther’s eponymous comic book at the time he was President of Entertainment for Black Entertainment Television from 2005-08. In 2010, he produced and adapted his Panther comics into an animated series released by BET, starring Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou (“Blood Diamond”) as the Panther. The series also starred Emmy nominee Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) and Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard (“12 Years a Slave”).

“When we first met, (Boseman) wanted to talk about the Panther. I wrote the character for many years, so, of course, we talked about it. He always does his research,” said Hudlin. “We had plenty of conversations about the Black Panther. But when we were shooting ‘Marshall,’ our focus was on ‘Marshall.’” 

Hudlin also praised Brown’s performance. Brown recently won an Emmy for portraying Randall Pearson on the above-mentioned “This is Us” on NBC. Last year, he won an Emmy for his portrayal of lawyer Christopher Darden on FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

“Again, fantastic actor, fantastic person. The thing is there are people who saw him as Darden and then when they watched (‘Marshall’), they didn’t know it was the same actor. That speaks to his ability to transform. Again, look at all three of those characters and all three of those performances – completely different people,” said Hudlin.

“Marshall,” which had a 140-page script, was filmed in 30 days in Buffalo, NY. The script was written by trial lawyer Michael Koskoff and his son Jacob. According to Hudlin, the cast and crew realized this was a very tight schedule and worked “with maximum efficiency” to get the movie completed on time.

“When you catch a movie, you want to be entertained,” said Hudlin. “You want to have fun. You want to be thrilled. You want to have some mystery, some excitement, and get inspired. That’s what ‘Marshall’ is.”

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