The film, Marshall, hasn’t hit theaters yet, but Black people on social media, including popular influencers, are already throwing shade because the lead actor isn’t light-skinned like Thurgood Marshall. 

Some of the critique of casting a dark-skinned lead actor in Marshall is fair because it fails to capture the impact of colorism that was very much at play during that time. The casting misses an important nuance. Colorism was and is real. Colorism absolutely impacted the opportunities given or denied to Black people during slavery and in the 150+ years post-slavery. That is indisputable fact. Paper bag tests are not a myth. The preference given to light-skinned Black people in higher education, employment, and social organizations was real and prevalent. Even HBCUs like Howard University, Thurgood Marshall’s law school alma mater were guilty of colorism. So it’s fair to assume his light-skinned complexion undoubtedly benefited him. That in no way diminishes his brilliance as a lawyer, nor his commitment to fighting for the civil rights of all Black people. 

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is one of our and America’s superheroes. This film is not a biopic or a documentary on civil rights or racism. This film is a courtroom drama depicting an important but little-known case that pre-dates Marshall’s emergence as a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. This film provides a preview of the brilliance and fearlessness that led to his victory in the landmark case Brown vs Board of Education. Marshall is the type of film socially-conscious Black people claim to want, where we’re depicted as intelligent, strong and successful. 

So why are so many people fixated on the lead actor’s resemblance (or lack thereof) to Thurgood Marshall? Why does it matter more than the subject matter and the quality of work done by the Black people in front of and behind the camera? 

Denzel Washington is a phenomenal actor. He has darker skin than the late Malcolm X, who went by the nickname “Detroit Red” before his conversion to Islam. Did Denzel’s dark skin diminish his portrayal of Malcolm? Who was even thinking about skin color as we watched his stellar performance?

Let’s support this film and the important, empowering story it tells. Let’s support the work of the actors and filmmakers who brought it to the big screen. 

By: Christina Rome

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