Today, Chadwick Boseman, who is fast becoming the Nate Dogg of the Black biography, will hit theater screens as a young Thurgood Marshall in the biographical drama Marshall. That casting decision likely left more than a few folks scratching their heads, wondering how a man much darker than Marshall could take on this role. It also likely drew comparisons to the controversial casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina. However, despite that similarity, there’s an authenticity Boseman brings to the role of Marshall that Saldana completely missed; hence the reason backlash concerning this casting is also missing.
Leading up to the 2016 release of Nina, there was massive uproar from fans and family of Simone alike. Saldana, a lithe, light-skinned Afro-Latina, was playing a woman whose music and activism was tightly bound to the fact that she was rejected by mainstream society for having dark skin, African features, and a broad body. To make matters worse, Saldana donned prosthetics to widen and “Blacken” her features and Blackface to darken her skin.
Luvvie Ajayi of Awesomely Luvvie tweeted about the ridiculousness of casting Saldana as Nina Simone, summing up what we all thought. “Zoe herself TRIED IT,” she wrote. “She coulda said no. Instead, she chose to look like the Avatar version of Nina Simone for pay.”
It also didn’t help Saldana’s case that in 2013 she said “there is no such thing as people of color ‘cause in reality people aren’t white.” Many took this declaration as a rejection of her Blackness, though she has since been quite vocal about the fact that she is Black and raising Black men.
Fast forward to 2017 and we have the opposite experience with Boseman portraying the first African-American supreme court justice. The former didn’t attempt to resemble the latter by employing Hollywood tricks like makeup and prosthetics. That likely would’ve resulted in the debacle that was Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story, which starred a white-faced Flex Alexander in the title role. Instead, Boseman is simply telling the story of Marshall’s defense of chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a man who was accused by a Connecticut socialite of raping and kidnapping her, with stellar acting derived from his experience of starring in other biopics like Get on Up and 42.
“I wanted to capture his personality, his swagger, his love of life, his sense of humor,” said Boseman to The New York Times of landing this role. “And his ambition.”
Critics who’ve seen the film agree that Boseman met his goal. “The ever-impressive Boseman […] delivers a strong and confident reading of Marshall,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy.
Variety’s Peter Debruge agreed that Boseman delivers a well-rounded Thurgood Marshall, complete with flaws. Boseman, Debruge wrote, offsets “Marshall’s mythic stature as the chief counsel for the NAACP with those qualities that made him human, including a well-earned yet case-endangering ego and a commitment to his work that was tough on his marriage.” The critic also argues that Boseman’s Thurgood Marshall is a “rich, three-dimensional character” like Denzel Washington’s Easy Rawlins in Devil in the Blue Dress.
It also helps that Marshall isn’t a biography — it’s a courtroom drama — so it isn’t necessary for Boseman to look exactly like Marshall. This is certainly a case in which the substance of a character is more important than his appearance.
“It’s not a cradle-to-grave biopic,” said Reginald Hudlin, Director of the Jacob Koskoff-Michael Koskoff-written film. “It’s a courtroom thriller. It’s a whodunit.”
While Boseman as Marshall may seem like a miscast on the surface, those who knew the man who would become the first Black Supreme Court justice say Marshall captures his “swagger, humor, and love of life,” according to The New York Times. Audiences may go into the theater ready to skewer Boseman in a perfectly snarky tweet, but will likely leave the theater feeling as if they’ve learned the origin story of a hero of justice.
Annika Harris was born and raised in the Bronx, and has voiced her opinions about fashion, style, and pop culture since the day she was able to string words into a sentence. Follow her travel and style adventures via @glamniki.