Denver Bar Association
June 2012
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Movie Review: ‘Thurgood’ a Thorough Look at Justice’s Life

by Mary Mullarkey


105 minutes, drama.
Not rated. Available on DVD.
Starring Laurence Fishburne.

"Thurgood" (2011) is the filmed version of the Tony-nominated one-man play about the life and times of Justice Thurgood Marshall, starring Laurence Fishburne. Well-staged and well-acted, the movie is a fascinating glimpse into the life of this complex man.

The premise of the movie is an appearance by Marshall before an audience of students at his alma mater, Howard University School of Law. In a casual, conversational tone that turns both humorous and serious, the justice discusses his life and work beginning with his childhood in Baltimore, where his father worked on a Pullman car for the B. & O. Railroad. Originally named Thoroughgood, he soon shortened his name to Thurgood because it was easier to write. Apparently his family had a habit of giving aspirational names to their children—an uncle was named Fearless.

Barred by his race from attending law school in his native Maryland, Marshall went to Howard in the 1930s. There, he came under the influence of the dean, a civil rights giant named Charles Hamilton Houston, who became known as the man who killed Jim Crow in the successful litigation strategy he implemented at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Shortly after Marshall graduated, Houston recruited Marshall to join him at the NAACP, where Marshall found his life's calling in the battle against racial segregation.

Ultimately, Marshall's work at the NAACP led to his successful representation of the plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. Both before and after the triumph of that case, Marshall spent years litigating cases in the deep South with the ever-present threat of violence. He slept in the homes of supporters and moved every day to avoid attacks by night-riding white supremacists. In one of the film’s most chilling moments, Marshall calmly describes how he barely avoided being lynched.

Marshall disagreed with Martin Luther King Jr.’s tactic of civil disobedience. When King told him he had the right to break unjust laws, Marshall acknowledged that that was true, but pointed out that King also had the right to go to jail for breaking the law. Marshall wanted to act within the law and use the power of the law to defeat racial segregation.

His successful civil rights advocacy came at great personal cost. Paid a mere $200 a month, Marshall was gone from home 200 nights a year. His life with his beloved wife Buster was cut short by her sudden death from cancer at age 44.

Marshall was appointed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals by President John F. Kennedy in 1954. He describes himself as happily ensconced on that court when President Lyndon B. Johnson called to say he wanted to nominate Marshall as Solicitor General. Marshall was hesitant to take a pay cut and leave a position with lifetime tenure, but LBJ won out with his famously persuasive skills, telling Marshall that he wanted everyone to see him in the traditional cutaway suit of the solicitor general, representing the United States of America.

Marshall describes the thrill of being nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court and how Johnson muscled his appointment through the Senate. In a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, Marshall was sworn into office by Justice Hugo Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Marshall served almost 25 years as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the movie, he discusses his conclusion that the death penalty is unconstitutional as a cruel and unusual punishment. He notes that he was the only one of the justices who had tried murder cases. He knew from his experience that the death penalty was imposed in a random, irrational manner, and no amount of tinkering could fix it.

Toward the end of his time on the court, Marshall found himself more and more often in the minority. He jokingly told his law clerks that if they came in and found him dead in his office, they should prop him up and keep the votes coming. Of course, that didn't happen; Marshall lived to retire from the court.

Thurgood Marshall was a great man. We are not likely to see his kind again soon. D


Mary J. Mullarkey is a former Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. Mullarkey, the longest serving Chief Justice in Colorado history, retired Nov. 30, 2010.

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