Marshall hit theaters on Friday, and it’s likely not at all what you thought it would be. Yes, it’s about one of the early cases of Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) before he became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. This shoutout to Black history is part of the reason why Chance the Rapper bought out every showing of the film at two movie theaters in Chicago on Friday. He even surprised moviegoers with an impromptu panel alongside the movie’s actors. But while Marshall tells the story of one of America’s most important Black figures, it is not the intensely serious historical drama you might expect.
Sure, the movie focuses on the trial of a man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who was convicted of raping a white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). However, the film puts a lot of focus on the man Marshall was, in addition to his work. The movie is infused with light-hearted moments that cut through the intensity of the Jim Crow-era racism. One scene in particular stands out in highlighting the Black joy and excellence of the era, and it comes with some pretty major cameos, too.
Before heading off to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to work on Spell’s case, Marshall and his wife enjoy a night at a jazz club in what I can only assume was Harlem. A singer (Andra Day) is crooning beautifully in the background. It would be much less significant if it weren’t for the company the couple is keeping. American poet, writer, and activist Langston Hughes (played by none other than Empire’s Jussie Smollett) joins them with his unnamed boyfriend. A woman walks into the club, and Hughes is clearly trying to avoid her, but in the film, at least, Marshall is a little messy and flags her over. It’s Zora Neale Hurston (played by Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas, one third of TLC!).
Many people know the importance of these two writers in literary history. But only connoisseurs of African-American literature are also aware of the tale of their close friendship, which came to an end over Mule Bone, a play they worked on together. It is rumored that Hurston may have had romantic feelings for Hughes that weren’t reciprocated because of his sexual preferences. That this scene in Marshall unfolded with expert shade and pettiness was a brilliant inclusion.
Chatting with Boseman about the epic scene that caused me to light up during an advanced screening, he offered more context on why it matters. “The scene is important in the movie because you need to see what [Marshall is] giving up,” he explained. “You need to see that he’s not running around in Oklahoma to Birmingham to Bridgeport doing this because he doesn’t have a life. He actually has one of the coolest lives you could possibly imagine.” Hurston and Hughes were staples of the Harlem Renaissance. Their writings on the Black experience were as well-received and championed as contemporary projects like Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Boseman notes that Marshall made good friends with “some of the coolest people and artists in the world.” He sacrifices this to provide legal defense for Black people in parts of the country where it was downright dangerous to do so.
This jazz club scene felt like a historic rendering of the Instagram and Twitter photos that go viral when celebrities get together at award shows to take pictures. I only wish I had been able to double tap.