Chadwick Boseman does not look much like Thurgood Marshall. And he knew that could be a problem.
"It was a hump we had to get over," admits Boseman, who portrays the Baltimore native and future U.S. Supreme Court justice in "Marshall," opening in theaters Thursday. "I don't look like him, and that was a discussion that we had."
The "we" refers to himself and director Reginald Hudlin, who insists that, from the start, he wanted Boseman to play the role. It's not surprising, since the 40-year-old actor has not only become the go-to choice when portraying African-American icons, having played both Jackie Robinson and James Brown in the past four years, but he'll be on the big screen as Marvel's Black Panther next year. But both said they realized that having the dark-skinned Boseman play the famously light-skinned Marshall could lead to controversy, especially since many believe that Marshall's light skin was a key factor in his ability to fight, as well as succeed in, a white-dominated society.
"For the black community, skin tone is a complex and important issue," says Hudlin, during an interview at Baltimore's Four Seasons Hotel. "Of all the things we had to talk about when we talked about doing the film, it was the thing that we did the deepest dive about."
Boseman, sitting across from Hudlin, says he opted to take the role only after realizing that "Marshall" was not written as a biography, but as a dramatization of one incident from early in Marshall's career as a lawyer with the NAACP. In 1941, Marshall and another lawyer defended a black man on trial for raping a white woman, a member of a prominent Connecticut family, in a trial rife with racial overtones. (The film doesn't touch on Marshall's upbringing and early career in Baltimore and Maryland.)
"No matter how dark or light he was, when he stepped in that courtroom, he was gagged," Boseman says (in the film, the presiding judge, played by James Cromwell, orders that Marshall never speak). "His complexion does play a role in the larger life. I don't think it plays a role in this case."
Ultimately deciding to play Marshall, Boseman says, was not easy, and not simply because of physical characteristics over which he had no control. Having just played two important historical figures, he wasn't sure about taking on a third.
"I was looking for something else at the time," he says, "something more contemporary, something that did not need history as part of it, something that was fantasy."
But the opportunity to work with Hudlin, who's been directing for more than a quarter-century (starting with 1990's "House Party"), combined with the respect he had for fellow Howard University grad Marshall — "He is a great man, I already knew that before doing the research" — won out.
"I needed to do it," Boseman says simply.
His insistence on casting Boseman, Hudlin says, came down to the determination that no other actor could fill this character's shoes more powerfully.
"Ultimately, for me, it's kind of like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine," he says. "Wolverine in the comics is a short guy, and that's a big part of who he is. He's short, he's got a chip on his shoulder and all that. But you know what? Hugh Jackman [who is 6'-3"] is the best possible guy to play Wolverine."
In effect, Hudlin says, Boseman was cast to play Thurgood Marshall more as a hero than a historical figure. "He's cool, he's got swagger...At the core of it, he's the smartest guy in the room, of any room he's in. And to me, that makes him an incredibly cool superhero."
More movies: Town of Bel Air Film Festival
Documentaries on biking, surfing and surviving will be featured at this weekend's 8th annual Town of Bel Air Film Festival.
Zack Bennett's "The Ataxian" (8 p.m. Friday) follows biker Kyle Bryant, who is afflicted with the neuromuscular disease Friedreich's ataxia, as he and a team of friends attempt one of the world's most grueling bicycle races, the Race Across America.
In Mark Christopher Covino's "The Crest" (4 p.m. Saturday), two American surfers, long unaware of each other's existence, travel to a group of islands off the coast of Ireland, determined to conquer some of the most serious waves ever — much as their shared ancestor did generations ago.
And finally, Holocaust survivor, small business owner and reluctant potential retiree Sonia Warshawski is at the center of Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday's "Big Sonia" (7:30 p.m. Saturday).
Screenings will be held at the Bel Air Armory, 37 N. Main St. Tickets are $5 per film, $10 for an all-access pass (free for kids under 10). townofbelairfilmfestival.com.
Free 'Step' screening
A free screening of "Step," Amanda Lipitz's inspirational documentary about the Lethal Ladies step team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday at the UA House at Fayette, 1100 E. Fayette St.
The screening, sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Tribeca Film Festival, will be followed by a performance from the Lethal Ladies. Information and required tickets can be obtained at tribecafilm.com/baltimore.