tv Tavis Smiley PBS October 13, 2017 6:30am-7:01am PDT
good evening from los angeles. i'm tavis smiley. tonight, a conversation with chadrick bozeman, the actor best known for portrayals of baseball legend jackie robinson and the dfather of soul, james brown, out with a new project, "marshall," portraying thurgood marshall long before he sat on the u.s. supreme court or claimed victory in brown v. board of education. the film explores one of marshall's greatest challenges in his early days as an attorney for the naacp. we're glad you've joined us, a conversation with chadwick boseman, coming up right now. ♪
and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ actor chadwick boseman is best known for his portrayals of baseball legend jackie robinson in the film "42" and james brown in "get on up." he is also the star of the highly anticipated marvel movie "black panther," but his current project is "marshall," centering around thurgood marshall, the first african-american supreme court justice, of course, and
one of his career-defining cases. before our conversation with chadwick, take a look at a clip from "marshall." >> i'm thurgood marshall with the naacp. you heard of us? >> are you a lawyer? >> i am. this is sam friedman. he's a lawyer, too. >> you can go. got no money for lawyers. >> did anybody ask you for money? did you rape that woman, joseph? >> no. >> why did she say you did? >> i don't know why she's saying that. >> she says you raped her and tried to kill her. >> she's lying. >> i'm telling you this up front. the naacp, we're not like most lawyers. we only represent innocent people, people accused because of their race. that's our mission. do you understand? so i need to know this. look at me now. did you do what they said you did? >> i never touched that woman.
>> okay, joseph. you've got lawyers now. >> so, i know this isn't the first time you heard this, but you're just cornering the market on our heroes. you're just cornering the market! >> hey, it's open for everybody else to do it, too. >> no, not as long as you're in town, because you keep sucking them up! >> yeah. >> there obviously must be some sort of joy, because i think it's more than just coincidental that you're playing these heroes. what's that about for you? >> the process is always enjoyable and scary at the same time because you know there's so much expectation when you play someone that is someone else's hero, when you play someone that is someone else's father or grandfather, but the process is
always so rewarding because you know that you're giving people a sense of history. people will go and then do their own research and find what is exactly like the movie and what is not like the movie. they'll find the other, in this case, other cases that thurgood marshall might have tried. you know, a lot of people know brown versus board of education, and they know that he was the first african-american supreme court justice, but they don't know the full extent of his impact. so, the fact that you're giving people a glimpse inside, and you know that they will also get this other wealth of things from it, that is a beautiful thing as well, so. >> i can't imagine -- i'm going to put you on the spot for a second, but i know you can handle it. i can't imagine that you play characters like these and you, long after they say "that's a wrap" don't take something away from these characters. >> right. >> let me put you on the spot.
what'd you take away from jackie robinson? >> there's -- i pulled -- it's funny that you say it that way, because i find myself pulling from not just these characters but from my parents. you know, when i need to do certain things, i pull from my father, i pull from my mother, i pull from my uncles, i pull from my brothers. but these characters have given me actually another avenue of things that i can pull from. so there's a certain amount of courage that you get from playing jackie robinson that you didn't have before. you can walk into spaces that you maybe think you don't belong, but you're going to go anyway. >> yeah. >> because that is exactly what he did, you know. i think there's a certain amount of providence that he had that allowed him to deal with the situations that he had to undergo, so you find yourself
checking yourself for how you're living because he had to be perfect. >> yeah. >> you know, he had to be spotless in certain cases. and i fall short, but i'm trying. you know, james brown, there's a certain audacity -- [ laughter ] -- that comes from playing james brown that i end up saying -- there will be certain moments, and all my friends know it, when i have to say things that are difficult. i might have said it before, but i wouldn't have done it in that way. and so, somehow, i can say things now that are uncomfortable or that will make people upset, and now people don't get upset because i throw a little james brown in there. [ laughter ] you know. because there's always like, it could have been worse than it was, you know. >> i can see that. >> it could have been worse. >> i can see that. >> you know. and i would say for thurgood marshall, it's -- you know, there's -- i walked into this
not knowing who he was and not knowing -- there's an audacity that he had as well, and there is a certain swagger that he had in order to walk in situations. he exists in a space where you're like, did he just do that? like, did he actually just -- you know, there's stories about him, you know, arguing cases in the south, and people would come and they just wanted to see him do it, you know. no matter what side of it they were on, they wanted to see this negro lawyer arguing this case. it was entertaining. and i think there is the sense of flair, the sense of the dramatic that he was able to always create, and it served him well. so, there's all of those things, i think there's a certain amount of selflessness i think he had, because he lived in a -- he
could have lived in a comfortable place to a certain degree, but he was driven by this goal to make america better than it was. >> there's an old adage that we see people's glory, but we don't know their backstory. >> right. >> we see the glory, but we don't know the backstory. when you get to play somebody like thurgood marshall, what do you come to appreciate about the backstory of any person who's great, the part that we don't see, part that we don't know, before they wind up on the supreme court or whatever their apex moment is? >> yeah, the thing that -- and i always want the younger audience to know this about thurgood marshall -- he wasn't the best student growing up. he had to find his way once he got to college, you know. he was the guy that missed out on class because he wanted to party. he was the guy that spent more time playing cards and drinking
bourbon and smoking cigarettes and all that stuff, and that was him, you know what i'm saying? he was more focused on the fraternity than he was -- you know, he was a practical joker. that's who he was. and so, i appreciate that, because a lot of times people get caught up in how we're tested in school. how the educational system sort of values one student over another. and i've taught students. i've taught students theater, i've taught them africana studies, and i always look at this student and i go, okay, he's smart. he's the one who's smarter than everybody else. he's too smart for his own good. and so, i appreciate the fact that thurgood marshall was that guy and he actually found his way and then he found a way to
use it in his practice. in his service, he found how to use -- like, that's the reason why he could get all of the alpha personalities all in one room, all of the best attorneys who would argue on his particular side of a case, hear their differences of opinion and battle it out, let iron sharpen iron, and he could galvanize that group of people together because of that personality, because people wanted -- they wanted to be in the room with him. they wanted to have the cigarette with him after. they wanted to have the bourbon. and they wanted to be around his personality while they did those things, and he would do it for nothing, you know, just to be there. >> there are two questions that are twirling in my head right now. let me see if i can get one of them out before i forget the other one. the first one is, how do you
figure a guy with that much swag husbands himself enough to accept that, in this particular case, in the movie, he can't even talk in court? >> right. >> as brilliant as this negro is, he's cold-blooded. you're right, everybody wants to be in the room with him. but in this particular -- i don't want to give the movie away, but in this case, this is where josh gad comes in, sam friedman, but how does marshall deal with not being able to talk in court? >> well, first of all, it was hard for me as the actor playing him -- [ laughter ] >> to not say nothing, yes. >> because when they give you the script for you're supposed to play thurgood marshall, you're like, oh, well, at least i'm going to have my chance to work on my speeches, and i can use some of my shakespeare, i can use some of my -- [ laughter ] >> you're not talking in court. you don't have to talk in court. >> i was like, wait a minute! you know, on page, i guess it was like 28. i was like, i don't get to talk in the courtroom? he's like, no, we're not doing
this. >> yeah, yeah, yeah. >> so, yeah, you know, for me, i think that was -- you know, there's always stakes in a story, with each character. the stakes are so high in this that he cannot afford to let that ego get in the way. if he loses this case, the naacp loses its funding, you know. domestic workers are being fired left and right because of what joseph spellman did or was accused of. you know, white people were firing all the black people that worked for them because, you know, somebody might get raped, something else, something might get stolen, you can't trust them anymore. so, that's -- it also shows the demonization of one black person did at that time and even sometimes it does today. >> yeah. >> but he couldn't afford to get
stuck in his ego because the stakes were bigger than him. the stakes were -- you know, his decisions, he was the only attorney for the naacp based upon budget who was traveling around dealing with cases all around the country. so him getting caught in his ego was detrimental to black people around the nation. >> yeah. we should mention, since you mentioned the brother who's on trial, played brilliantly by sterling k. brown, we can do this without giving the movie away. you can tell what the case is and why marshall is representing him. >> he's accused of raping a white woman, you know. >> his employer. >> his employer. >> yeah, yeah. >> and you know, and it's not the south. it's in bridgeport, connecticut, but the same -- i think that's a key part of this movie is that it -- and it's one of the reasons why you tell this story -- is that it's in the north. so it pinpoints racism in the north, where it's not supposed to exist, and yet, you find it
being very similar. because you see thurgood marshall in other parts of the movie, he's in the south, and you get to make that comparison. but yes, it's rape. >> i don't want to give this away, but there are a couple of cameos in this thing that are breathtaking. >> right. >> i'm like, is that who i think that is? a couple of those cameos were pretty amazing. i'll leave it at that. the other thing i'm curious to get your take on, chadwick, is what you learned, if anything, from marshall, from playing marshall, back to his swag, about the success he had talking to, engaging with, navigating through and around white folk. >> mm-hmm. >> because here we are all these years later and you look at what's happening in our country right now and people are still struggling with how to have a conversation about "a," "b," "c" or "d," and at his best, marshall knew how to talk to both sides. >> right. >> give me a sense of what you
saw in the way he navigated that, the white side of town. >> yeah, i -- to me, one of the most important things that you get from watching this movie and from playing the role is there's a fearlessness that he had with the truth. i think he believed -- and mind you, he was a good storyteller, so he knew what a lie was. he knew what a lie was. but when it came down to it in situations where a case was being argued, where laws were being passed, where how we live in society is dealt with -- because you know, you have the founding fathers who give us our constitution, but thurgood marshall is the person who essentially went around arguing the smaller aspects and details of whether, you know, those, the
truths and the quality and justice would be held up. and so, he was willing to walk into the room and speak truth to power, and he didn't care whether he lost or not. and i think that's the key factor, is he's the guy, if you talk about swagger, that wants the ball at the end of the game and wants to take the shot, you know. if there was another attorney that was going to argue a case, he was upset. the stories about him being upset about the fact that he didn't get to go argue a certain case. so, he's kobe bryant. he's the guy that wants to shine at the end of the game. so you see a man who on one level of the court system as an attorney lost a lot of cases in order to get to the supreme court and argue cases in front of greater minds, in front of men who are seeing the world from a perspective that is
larger. and in that instance, he won 29 out of 32 times. and i think there's a great lesson in that. one, that you have to lose in order to win. and two, that you cannot be afraid to lose. you cannot -- you have to put yourself in situations where it's all or nothing. and i think there is -- i think he believed in what the truth does on the other side to the person internally, no matter what their race is. and right now in this divisive climate, people have taken sides. and somehow, they've kind of forgotten that, that on the other side, the truth still does the same thing inside that person and changes them. >> part of what we're -- i'm glad you said that. now it's getting good here. part of what we're wrestling with, though, is that marshall was clear about what the truth is. >> right. >> we live in a world now --
>> where people are not clear about it. [ laughter ] >> and not only not clear about it, but people determine for themselves what the truth is. >> right. >> the truth is what i determine it to be. >> right. >> you see that from the oval office on down. the people determine what they think the truth is, and they tell you this is the truth when there's all kind of data evidence to the contrary. that's what's so disturbing to me, is that it's hard to have a conversation, it's hard to create a democratic space for us to have authentic dialogue if somebody's going to tell you something is true that you know is a lie. >> well, you can only do that to a certain point. >> yeah. >> like, we can only do that -- we can only deny, for instance, that there's climate change to a certain extent. like, what the reality is, you know, how many hurricanes have we had in this season so far? and the reality is, you know, that yeah, the ice is melting, the polar caps is melting, and diseases are being unfrozen, and we're going to see what happens.
you know, you can only deny nature for, you know, so long. so, there are certain things when you're talking about, you know, as much as our human minds can lie and create its own truth, at a certain point, you know, nature comes into play, and that truth is -- it has a natural identity. humidity has a natural identity, and you can't lie about that. >> and still that doesn't stop folks from giving alternative facts. >> from trying. >> yeah, yeah. it is possible -- i'm back to these characters you played, thurgood marshall recently, but i'm thinking of jackie robinson, james brown, thurgood marshall. it is impossible in my mind to be that great, to be that iconic, and not take a risk to your point. a friend of mine says to have it all, you've got to risk it all, so they're taking great risk. but for all they accomplish, there is also something they
sacrifice. >> right. >> what did marshall sacrifice for all that he accomplished? >> well, you see parts of it in the movie, the family, his family life. you know, he was actually born in harlem. he was born in harlem, although his parents had been in baltimore before that. they moved to harlem just before he was born. and then he went back to harlem at age 6. >> back to baltimore. >> and later on, he goes back to live. so, he's in harlem, and you know, harlem is -- there's a renaissance. there is a beautiful culture. he's around all these beautiful people, artists, coming from everywhere just to collaborate together. and he had a beautiful wife. he left that to go fight for freedom and justice and equality
for people around the country. and if you think about, you know, if each person thinks about their respective lives and the comfortability of their lives, not many of us would go to some rural town that does not have those same -- like you know, do they have a trader joe's there? do they have a whole foods? do they have my vegan spot? do they have this? do they have -- no, i'm not going there, you know. >> yeah, yeah, yeah. >> it's the same thing. so, he gave up -- he gave up what would be, you know, the american dream in harlem, because it existed in its own way there. to go do this. and it's like, you know, i think about myself, and again, i feel like i can never measure up to what -- the men i've played, do i measure up to them? i'm doing my best. >> that's why i respect you so
much. you take these giants, man, and try to bring them down to earth. i'm like, chadwick's a bad boy to even be attempting that. it would scare me to death. that's why you like doing it, though. >> of course, because you learn from it. you grow from it. grow from it. >> yeah. when will you know you've bitten off more than you can chew? [ laughter ] or is that not possible for a cat like you? >> hey, i'm going to -- i probably will at some point. >> yeah. >> i doubt that. >> i probably will. i probably will. >> i'm just messing with you. i doubt that. >> listen, you've got to lose. you've got to lose sometimes. >> yeah, not you. not you. i'm betting on your thespian capabilities and possibilities every day. before i let you out of here in three minutes, speaking of taking risk, this black panther project is everywhere. i was just talking to a friend of mine the other day, art sims, who did the poster for the black panther thing. he showed it to me, just excited about it, and i'm glad to see that art was doing that, but it's like everybody's talking about this black panther project. when you walked on set, we showed you a little picture of kim, my producer, her nephew
walking around detroit with his black panther suit on. you have kids -- >> it's not even halloween yet! >> and he's walking around in his black panther suit on. so i suspect it's just a matter of time before you have kids all over the country just being proud of -- >> i hope so. >> yeah. >> you know, it's amazing, like we were at comic-con and i was seeing -- it's not just black kids, it's white kids, latino kids, asian kids, you know, little girls that are black panthers. and there's a lot of great female characters within our movie, too, which i love. it's definitely cutting edge. so i'm proud of it. i'm proud of it. i can't really say more than that about it. >> yeah, i know. you see i didn't ask you about -- i didn't ask you a question about it. >> but i'm proud of the fact that people are excited about it. >> yeah, yeah.
the balance. you played these real-life heroes and now you play this comic book character. that balance must be -- >> they help each other. >> i was going to say that, yeah. >> for me as an actor, it gives me balance, you know, because you don't want to be in the superhero suit all the time. and the character itself, i have to say that black panther, he's not just a superhero, he's also a head of a state, a head of state. he's a king. so you get that inside the movie, but at the same time, you know, being able to step into, you know, the role of thurgood marshall. even i did this movie that was just on netflix that's doing really well on netflix, "message from the king." it's a small art house thriller. they all help with the process, like the process of playing a real person, the process of playing someone that's completely fantasy. you're able to bring truth to
the fantasy and fantasy to the real because you're doing both things. >> he's a bad man. he's playing superheroes and real-life heroes. his latest turn is playing thurgood marshall in the film "marshall," which you can catch this weekend all around the country. chadwick, always honored to have you on this program, my friend. >> thank you. >> good to see you, bro. >> thank you. >> that's our show for tonight. thank you for watching, and as always, keep the faith. ♪ for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with actress and humanitarian ashley judd. that's next time. we'll see you then.
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