We love origin stories for our icons. That’s true not only for superheroes but for the real people who have influenced our world. This week brings another sort of origin story in the new release Marshall. Directed by Reginald Hudlin, the movie stars Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall in one story pulled from the years before he became the first black United States Supreme Court justice.
The story follows one particular case from early in his career. In Connecticut, a black man (Sterling K. Brown) has been charged with the rape of the woman he drove for (Kate Hudson). Marshall is called to help defend the accused, but because of segregation laws at the time he enlists the help of a local Jewish lawyer (Josh Gad). Together they work to overcome the biases in the town that threaten to convict based more on race than on the evidence of the case.
The first poster is simple, showing a black and white image of Boseman as Marshall, standing there in a suit and hat and clutching his briefcase. The red of the title treatment provides a bit of contrast to that photo. “Live hard. Fight harder” is the copy, which tells us that we’re in for a bit of scrapping of some form in the story.
“His weapon was the truth” is the copy on the second poster, which uses the photo collage design concept to share as much about the movie as possible in a single image. Boseman, Gad, Brown and Hudson are all shown here in individual photos along with other pictures of scenes that are important to the story. It’s fine, but it’s an approach that’s been used dozens of times in the past and conveys little that’s unique or compelling about the movie.
The first trailer sets out by immediately establishing Marshall as kind of a badass as he gets into a bar fight. Then we hear about how far he’s come from his grandfather’s position as a slave, but he faces prejudice and anger from all quarters. He’s assigned a case where a black man was charged with assaulting a white woman, which has exposed the racial ugliness of the period. When he brings on a Jewish partner for the case things only get worse but Marshall is no less determined to fight for justice and break down all the barriers society has put in place, ending with a shot of him drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain.
It’s a powerful trailer, to be sure, but the audience’s expectation is likely that this is more of a biopic about America’s first black Supreme Court justice. It’s not that at all, though. Instead we get a clear cut procedural story that wouldn’t be out of place on “Law & Order” or in a John Grisham novel, though with Marshall in the spotlight. That’s different from what might be expected, taking an awfully narrow slice of his life instead of trying to track it on a larger scale. Not saying it isn’t still compelling, just unexpected.
The second trailer starts out much the same way as the first, showing us the hard life Marshall led before his appointment to the Supreme Court. We see again how he’s assigned a controversial case with great racial implications.
Online and Social
Full-screen video pulled from the trailers plays on the front page of the official website, obscured by the title, pull quotes from early reviews and a prompt to watch the trailer. There are also links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles as well as call-outs for both the #MarshallMovie hashtag for conversations about the movie and #StandUpForSomething for more general activism. It’s also the name of an original song on the movie’s soundtrack.
“About” has a Synopsis and Cast and Crew information for you to peruse. After that is a section on the soundtrack, with a link to buy or stream the album. “Videos” has the trailers and other promotional videos, including all the introductions from the cast. “Photos” has a decent gallery of stills.
Persistent on the site is a call to action for “Group Sales.” The studio obvious want to encourage people to go see the movie en masse, a common tactic with issues-based films like this.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Boseman himself introduces Marshall as a forerunner to other civil rights heroes in a TV spot that has the whole primary cast encouraging the audience to not only see the movie but stand up and fight for equality, calling out racism and other problems when they see it. Further TV commercials would range from those that used short, emotional appeals based on the praise the movie has already received to those that used the second collage-based poster as a starting point to dive into the characters played by each member of the cast.
Using either of the hashtags mentioned above unlocks a sponsored emoji on Twitter, a symbol of the balanced scales of justice. The trailers and other videos were also used as sponsored posts on both Twitter and Facebook.
Media and Publicity
Boseman also showed up on “Kimmel” right around the time of the debut of the first trailer to help promote it along with Black Panther.
Later in EW’s fall movie preview Boseman talked about how yes, this was another historical figure he was portraying, but that he was drawn to characters of significance.
Boseman showed up again on “Kimmel” closer to release and he and the other cast did various other interviews and appearances. Both he and Brown did this joint interview where they talked about the representation of black people on film and how, while there’s still room for improvement, things are better than they once were. Ethnicity also came up in an interview with Gad, where he talked about how taking on such an overtly-Jewish role was a decision made in part to honor his Holocaust-surviving grandparents.
Hudson was the subject of a feature profile where he talked about his career as well as why he got involved in making this movie and how the story, because it’s a less well-known part of Marshall’s career, makes it a perfect one to surprise audiences with.
Perusing the social profiles for the movie, it seems Open Road organized plenty of screenings and Q&A sessions around the country to help get people excited for the movie and position it as an important one for people to see and spread the word regarding.
Context matters. I mentioned above that my initial reaction to the first trailer was a bit underwhelming because it came off like a preview for the latest episode of a TV police procedural. It was only after reading the interview with Hudlin that I realized the dramatic implications of framing a relatively unknown part of Marshall’s life and selling it like this. The whole point is to sell it in a familiar way because it will be more appealing to the audience and provide the most impact when they do see it.
More than that, I think the best thing the campaign does is get the actors involved in selling it directly. Specifically I’m referencing the trailer introductions and other videos from Boseman, Brown and Gad. In a cultural era where athletes, actors and others are asked to take a side on any number of issues, these three are putting their money where their mouth is, not only selling the move but the racial equality Marshall – and others – sought in all things. They are loudly declaring that not only are they proud of the movie, they’re proud of its message. That’s a powerful appeal.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.