'Marshall': 8 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

8:00 AM 10/13/2017

by Courtney Idasetima

Set to hit the big screen Friday, the film depicts Thurgood Marshall's early career and start to setting the scene for civil rights justice.

Thurgood Marshall is most notably known for his involvement in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas which effectively ended legal sanctioned segregation in May 1954, stating that "separate" was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional, as well as being the first African-American sworn in to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. But he was involved in other groundbreaking cases. 

Marshall, which is based on true events from Marshall’s career as a young lawyer, retells the accounts of a rape case, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, in 1940. Below, read more about the cast and who they played in the biopic, which hits theaters Friday.

  • Thurgood Marshall, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman

    Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court after being appointed by President Johnson in 1967. Despite his race keeping him from opportunities to further his education at the University of Maryland Law, he was accepted into the law school at Howard University, a historically black college.

    Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Marshall in the film, is no stranger to playing real-life figures. Boseman previously played, in various films, Floyd Little, Jackie Robinson and James Brown; he also stars as Marvel superhero the Black Panther in the 2018 film of the same name.

    At a recent event at Compton High School in California featuring a screening of the film followed by a panel with its cast, Boseman shared with the 1,200 students in attendance what drew him to the role.

    "First, I knew that this was not a story about Thurgood Marshall that people would know," he said. "You should know that he is a supreme court justice, but I knew people did not know this story — they did not know the ending of it."

    He also described his experience playing Marshall, a lighter-skinned man, in this biopic, on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

    "I don’t look like him in terms of complexion, and you know once I read [the script], I realized that, that really wasn't important," he said. "It’s, you know, each movie you do about a real person is a painting, and you choose certain things about a painting that you want to show. For this one, it’s the spirit of the man. He lives hard, he works hard. So I wanted to show this person who just was an interesting person."

  • Sam Friedman, portrayed by Josh Gad

    Josh Gad portrays Sam Friedman, a Caucasian lawyer who had practiced law since the early 1920s brought in by Bridgeport, Conn.'s NAACP as Joseph Spell’s attorney to ensure a fair trial. During the time of the trial, Friedman, like any other white man in the area, did not believe that the acts between Spell and Strubing were consensual, but he still represented him in the case. Friedman worked closely with Marshall during the trial. He took the role of questioning witnesses. 

    Gad described Marshall as a superhero at the Compton High School event. “This is a movie about a superhero who doesn’t wear a cape, but wears a suit and tie," said Gad. "A superhero that doesn’t go fight bad guys that live on different planets, but fights bad guys who live in our cities, in our towns and that to me, I think, is one of the most, if not the most important parts of this film because each of you has the potential to be that superhero."

  • Joseph Spell, portrayed by Sterling K. Brown

    The defendant, Joseph Spell, was an African-American chauffeur and butler falsely accused of rape and attempted murder of his wealthy employer, Eleanor Strubing. Although he is innocent, he fears he may be misjudged due to the color of his skin in court.

    Coming from the other side of the courtroom in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Sterling K. Brown — who won an Emmy last year for his role as prosecutor Christopher Darden in that miniseries and another one this year for his role in This Is Us — portrays Spell on the big screen.

  • Eleanor Strubing, portrayed by Kate Hudson

    Eleanor Strubing, portrayed by Kate Hudson, was a white woman married to a wealthy advertising executive who accused her African-American chauffeur/butler, Joseph Spell, of raping her multiple times in her Greenwich, Conn., mansion as well as attempted murder.

    The Golden Globe winner took to Instagram to share the positive experience she had filming the movie captioning a photo dressed as Strubing, “That’s a wrap on Marshall. What a great time we all had making this film.”

  • Langston Hughes, portrayed by Jussie Smollett

    Langston Hughes, portrayed by Jussie Smollett, was an African-American author and activist who centered his poetry, novels, plays and newspaper columns on the African-American experience during the Harlem Renaissance. He was a good friend of Thurgood Marshall.

    Although Smollett joked about having to go "buttf aced" and shave his facial hair for the role, he thanked director Reginald Hudlin on social media for casting him in the part, writing: “Thank you @reggiehudlin for the opportunity. It's been a dream."

    He recently told The Hollywood Reporter that the hardest part of playing the role was “just staying true and just not doing a caricature of what we think he might have been, but really looking at him as a man.”

    He added, “It’s just a simple scene, but it is so impactful, you know? And it’s a beautiful scene just to show the natural brotherhood between Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes, I don’t think a lot of people knew even existed. That was really, really cool to do, but he’s been such a huge influence on me since I was a child. The first grown person book I ever read was at 7 years old — my mother bought me [Hughes' short-story collection] The Ways of White Folks — so to be able to play him even for a moment is pretty special.” 

  • Zora Neale Hurston, portrayed by Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas

    Like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston was an activist and author known for her strides in uplifting African-American literature during the Harlem Renaissance through folks and novels. Hurston was a graduate of Columbia University, where she studied anthropology seeing African-American stories through a different lens. She was friends and colleagues with both Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. In the film, she is portrayed by Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, best known as part of the Grammy-winning group TLC.

  • Vivian "Buster" Burey, portrayed by Keesha Sharp

    Thurgood Marshall met his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey, while she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and the two married not long after. Early on in their marriage, the couple lived with Marshall’s parents to save money. The couple had no children together. Burey, portrayed by Keesha Sharp, was married to Marshall from 1929 until her death in 1955. 

  • Lorin Willis, portrayed by Dan Stevens

    Lorin Willis, portrayed by Dan Stevens, was the lead prosecutor for Eleanor Strubing in this case. He was considered an unreconstructed bigot at the time.