American television is generally awful when it comes to talking about race.
Afraid of possibly offending anyone and absolutely terrified of tackling complex subject matter, most networks and major cable channels have come to largely avoid the topic in recent years — even during Black History Month.
That timid TV backdrop is part of what makes HBO's "Thurgood," which debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday, such a special program. The film version of the one-man play starring Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore-born civil rights attorney and the first black Supreme Court justice, is one of the most frank, informed and searing discussions of race you will ever see on TV.
But that exploration of African-American identity is only of several factors that distinguishes this production written and produced by 14-time Emmy-winner George Stevens Jr., of "Kennedy Center Honors" acclaim. President Barack Obama thought enough of "Thurgood" to host a screening at the White House last week. And Juan Williams, who wrote a 1998 biography of the famed jurist, says Fishburne captures the man onstage far better than any actor, including Sidney Poitier, who played Marshall in the 1991 TV movie "Separate But Equal."
"Marshall and I did interviews over the course of six months," Williams said in an interview last week. "So once, sometimes twice a week, I'd be up there at the court talking with him. Obviously, it's nothing exact, but as I watched Fishburne, I thought to myself, 'He has really captured some of Marshall's mannerisms and attitude. Sidney Poitier is obviously a wonderful actor, but in terms of attitude, skin color and body, he just didn't have it. But Fishburne, in terms of presence, weight, manner and attitude — he was able to capture the older Marshall I knew."
Be ready to hear Fishburne using the "n" word — several times — and shouting it loud from the stage of Washington's Kennedy Center, where the play was filmed. But also know that its use is always instantly redeemed by razor-sharp insights into the lies and contradictions at the heart of racist beliefs. Here, the word is used not to shock but to explode stereotypes and hate.
As some Baltimore and Maryland viewers know, Marshall never forgot or totally forgave the racism he experienced as a young man — and much of it is in the play. While almost everyone knows about him being denied admission to the University of Maryland because of his race, they might not know about an embarrassing loss of control that he once suffered as a child because African-Americans were denied the use of bathrooms in downtown Baltimore. That's how personal it gets in "Thurgood."
Marshall judged Baltimore to be as racist as any city in the deep South, and viewers will hear that proclamation made at the very start of the film.
"They call Baltimore up south," Fishburne tells the audience. ""That's just below what we used to call the Smith & Wesson line."
"I'm pleased that HBO is giving this play some circulation," Williams says, "because if you talk to younger people, this generation, they often talk about [Martin Luther] King and Malcolm [X], but they don't know Marshall and they don't know what an important figure he was in 20th-century American history."
Williams, author of "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary," isn't the only one who thinks telling Marshall's story to a mass audience and new generation is important. Another aspect of this production that makes it unusual is the fact that even though it is a commercial film made by HBO, it has nonprofit and philanthropic support from the Annenberg Institute for Civics at the University of Pennsylvania. That's a PBS production model — not HBO. So, how did that happen — and could it be a new business model for quality commercial TV?
Stevens says that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer saw the play open in New York, and said to him, "I wish every school child could see 'Thurgood.'"
Breyer subsequently introduced Stevens to officers of the Annenberg Institute, who offered to "put up some of the money" to make the play into a film — as well as promising to put the film in 40,000 schools via DVD on Constitution Day in September.
Despite a record that includes such films as "The Thin Red Line," Stevens says it would have been 'difficult" to get "Thurgood" made for TV without the Annenberg support, which helped him and his son, Michael Stevens, who produced and directed, mount a first-class film production with many members of the "Kennedy Center Honors" crew onboard.
We had to basically show HBO that we could film this in a way that wasn't static," Stevens said in an interview last week. "They have not had good luck with filming plays."
"You're Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush," a live TV production of Will Ferrell's one-man play in 2009, is one example of that pattern.
But that is one of the most pleasant surprises of "Thurgood" — as righteous as it sounds in terms of history and message, it is not just good for you. It's just plain good — fast-paced, emotionally engaging and even transporting at times.
Much of the credit goes to Fishburne's performance, but there other important factors, like the way in which Stevens' script captures Marshall's liberating sense of humor, and the rich look of the overall production.
"We filmed four performances, and we lit it like a movie, not a TV show," Stevens says of some of the choices his son made as director. "And we used many, many camera angles, so that we were able to give it both visual texture and have variety in points of view. And Michael also enlisted this wonderful composer, Rob Maltes, to create some music that is not intrusive but gives the audience subtle cues about what's going on."
None of that is cheap, but it is key to what makes "Thurgood' such a successful play-turned-film and illuminating viewing experience.
"In the end, I think it's great that people are giving this kind of attention to Marshall," Williams says. "I think he helps reorient our thinking about race in our society in a very important way. He reminds us that this is a country of laws, and that we have a Constitution, and that we are blessed with it. The notions of intense fidelity to the law and patriotism from the black community are right there in the story of Marshall — and it's great to see those stories being told."