On Oct. 13, Marshall, which stars the likes of Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown and is directed by Reginald Hudlin, will be making its debut in theaters. Usually I’d be super pumped at the idea of those names being attached (together) to a huge project like this. But in this case? I’m barely whelmed with excitement for this movie.
And it’s mainly because of one tiny, pesky little thing:
Chadwick Boseman was blatantly miscast as Thurgood Marshall.
And before you say it, it is not quite the same as Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X, but that is a story for another day.
Now, before I proceed, let me start this off by saying that I am a known Chadwick Boseman stan. From peeping him in his early days in Lincoln Heights as the mysterious Nathaniel Ray, to drawing hearts next to his name in my chemistry notebook in high school and cheering him on when he scored the role of a lifetime by being cast as the ubiquitous Black Panther, I have been (and remain) invested in his success as an actor and as the human personification of a dreamboat.
That said ... I still think he’s completely wrong for the role of Thurgood Marshall, great actor or not. There are many reasons for my stance on this, but let’s just start with this one:
Some have been quick to call the casting of Boseman as Marshall a gross example of colorism itself, but that’s erroneous. Colorism is not an issue that swings “both ways”; nor is it an issue that affects both light-skinned and dark-skinned black folx the same. And in case you need a refresher, here’s the definition of colorism (per Oxford):
Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
See? Not really the word you’re looking for, especially in the spirit of naming things by name, calling spades spades and not abusing the terminology of the marginalized. To be fair, of course, colorism should be involved in this conversation, since it did have a profound hand in Marshall’s life, but I’m not a fan of Columbusing definitions.
With that being the case, I’d classify this more as something similar to “side-washing,” first brought to my attention by director Lexi Alexander. Alexander explains this as an instance in which the powers that be refrain from casting a white face because of the rightful backlash it would cause, and instead opt to cast a person of color who they think won’t rock the boat too much and who might be able to please all parties (famous examples? Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse and Avan Jogia as King Tut).
Granted, it’s still not the right person of color, but they get points for trying because a) diversity! and b) at least it wasn’t a white person, amirite?
That’s the same vibe I’m getting from the people who don’t seem to grasp the complications of casting Boseman in this role. The idea is that any black person was gonna be better than the alternative and that black is black is black ... even though we are constantly stating that blackness is not a monolith.
And speaking of blackness:
There’s no way to discuss the life and times of Thurgood Marshall without discussing the integral role that his light-skinnedness played in his life and how colorism blew in his favor often.
To put things in perspective, Marshall was the first black Supreme Court justice.
“First black ... ” is the main operative in that honorable title. Think about all the “first black [insert heres]” that you’ve heard about: The first black president of the United States. The first black woman to win a best actress Oscar. The first black senator since Reconstruction. The first black presidential Cabinet member. The first black chair of the Democratic National Committee. The first black governor. The first black Miss America ... and I can go on.
Notice anything similar? If your guess is that all the people who happened to accomplish these things are noticeably of lighter skin and/or are multiracial black folx, then you’d be correct. It’s undeniable that light-skinned black folx are granted an edge in the fucked-up ladder we refer to as privilege, but besides saying that in the abstract, there is something that is granted to them almost 2,934,857,613 times more often than the average dark-skinned black person:
This was an important and recurring thing that popped up in Marshall’s life. Born to parents who were just as light as he (particularly his father, who was described as having light skin and blue eyes), Marshall spent a majority of his formative years growing up in a well-off, integrated neighborhood in Baltimore that was home to white immigrants and black upper- and middle-class people.
His mother was a respected schoolteacher, and his father worked as a Pullman-car porter and was also the head waiter at a country club where Marshall was eventually hired to work (though his light skin did not protect him from the racism he experienced from a particularly nasty U.S. senator who repeatedly called him “nigger” and “boy,” his friendship with the club’s secretary shielded him from most of it). Together, they did their absolute best to shield both Marshall and his older sibling from the brunt of Southern racism.
As a result, Marshall took a very chill, “Let’s not rock the boat” approach to racism in general, until he experienced its ills firsthand through various circumstances that included getting into a fight over being called a nigger (and getting out of jail ALIVE because of his father’s pull and friends in the city), a segregated movie theater and a stinging rejection from the University of Maryland School of Law because of its policy on segregation. These instances (and many more) gave way to the Thurgood Marshall we are familiar with.
But even then, with all that success, Marshall was never shy or coy about detailing how his skin factored into his life, and I do not doubt that President Lyndon B. Johnson found it more advantageous to lobby for him to become a Supreme Court justice because of how light his skin was, and how palatable and relatable that made him. So if Marshall himself attested to colorism and light-skinned privilege, what’s the point of being coy or intellectually dishonest about it?
With all that said, even if I—for some reason—opted to downplay the importance of Marshall being light-skinned, there is the issue of Boseman being a recurring face in historical or even fictional roles of this magnitude.
To date, Boseman has played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Floyd Little and more. He is also currently playing Black Panther for Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which provided a well-deserved and well-earned boost. However, although it is well earned, a trend has formed in the casting of Boseman as the go-to importante black figure in a film, which shines an interesting light on Hollywood’s tendency to tokenize its black actors and other actors of color.
Indeed, Hollywood is known for its ugly but unspoken “there can only be one” rule. This ensures that whiteness keeps its grip on all things—including entertainment—while Hollywood seems like it is perfectly “diverse” but, you know, not too diverse. It’s the reason we see “mainstream” publications declaring someone “the next Denzel Washington,” “the next Halle Berry” or whichever other black person is super hot at the moment. They would much rather do that than allow space for the black up-and-comer in question to carve a path out for themselves.
Granted, there should be room for more than one of us. In fact, there IS room for more than one of us. Hollywood doesn’t want us to know that, which is why it is important that we continue to make room for the rest of us.
Which is why, again, having Boseman be the go-to guy in this instance was not the move. Even with the knowledge that Marshall’s son may have asked Boseman to play him in the film, I am still fairly convinced that Boseman should have respectfully declined. There are plenty of light-skinned actors out there—both known and unknown—who would have understood the duality to Marshall’s skin and would also have been able to give the role the swagger it needed.
Boseman simply needed to get out of the way to make that happen.