Marshall is more than a generic biopic of famed lawyer and civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. It’s a courtroom drama—an account of a single case tried in 1940s New England in which Marshall defended a Black man accused of raping a wealthy white woman. On-screen, Marshall opines that “fear and bias against his race are the central points of the case against” his client. The foreboding threat of violence against Black men is pervasive in the film, even leading the defendant to say that consensual sex with a white woman would “get me killed.” By making a rape case the backdrop for a civil rights story, Marshall illuminates the dehumanizing, sexualized prejudice that led to Black men being unfairly charged with rape during Jim Crow.
It’s what journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells attested to in “Lynch Law in America,” a speech delivered in Chicago in 1900. “No colored man, no matter what his reputation, is safe from lynching if a white woman, no matter what her standing or motive, cares to charge him with insult or assault.” Following the deadly 2015 Charleston church shootings, Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate that the fear of Black men preying on white women has driven much of the country’s history of racist violence, from the infamous murder of Emmett Till to the Tulsa Race Riots.
The unsettling truth is that white women frequently lied about Black men and manipulated America’s judicial system to uphold a structure of white supremacy and violence. But that’s only one side of the history of race and sexual violence.
The idolization of white womanhood and the demonization of Black men went hand-in-hand with white men’s sexual persecution and assault of Black women. Yet, historical dramas like Marshall frequently omit the parallel story of Black women to push a male-oriented representation of the civil rights movement.
In Marshall, the dramatization of a single trial—a courtroom whodunit in which the salaciousness of rape charges simply raise the stakes of the case—tunes out the broader implications of sexual violence. The crux of the film rests on the heroic protagonists wielding the “weapon” of the law to win the case rather than seeking to expose the fundamental corruption of a legal system that offered little recourse to Black people. Marshall recalls a racially charged rape trial, but fails to explore the crucial intersection of gender and race—the very existence of Black women.
In her groundbreaking book, At Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, historian Danielle McGuire argues that “we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement” to include Black women’s fight against institutionalized sexual assault as one of the cornerstones for the battle for racial justice in America. While films like Marshall tend to focus on the “heroic leadership” of men, it is “the stories of Black women who fought for bodily integrity” that tell a more complete story.
Interestingly, The Rape of Recy Taylor, an independent documentary that discusses the 1944 abduction and gang rape of Recy Taylor in Alabama, is also screening this fall. It offers a glimpse into the ritualistic violence inflicted on Black women and their uphill struggle for justice. After reporting her rape, Taylor was harassed and threatened by the town’s sheriff and police. They stonewalled the investigation, manipulated evidence and testimony, and accused Taylor of being a prostitute riddled with STDs. Although one of her assailants confessed, an all white, all male jury refused to indict the six white men. It was, as McGuire wrote, “a farce… to remind Black women that they could not rely upon even the most basic protections under the law.” In 2011, Taylor received an official apology from the state of Alabama for failing to prosecute.
Taylor’s case is emblematic of the sexual violence inflicted on Black women in the mid 20th century—as stirrings of the civil rights movement began to ripple through the country. McGuire wrote that rape in the Southern US was used as a “weapon of terror to dominate the bodies and minds of African American men and women.” In a society that designated Black women socially, economically, and morally inferior, white men were empowered to sexually assault them without consequences. It was a widespread and deliberate dehumanization, according to McGuire. “White men lured Black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while they were traveling to or from home, work, or church; and sexually humiliated and harassed them at bus stops, grocery stores, and in other public places,” she wrote.
The Rape of Recy Taylor explores this systemic and unchecked patriarchal racism. Like Marshall, the film is grounded in a single case, but The Rape of Recy Taylor asks viewers to recognize Taylor’s trauma as part of a broader, institutionalized inequality. The film articulates why a white supremacist society couldn’t conceive the rape of a Black woman as a criminal act. Yet, its analysis stretches beyond the legalities of the case and examines the legacy of systemic violence, not just on the victims, but on their families and friends who feel powerless to protect them. Interviews with Taylor’s surviving family members hint at crises in Black masculinity by reminiscing over her father’s guilt, grief, and inability to exact revenge on his daughter’s assailants. And unlike Marshall, the legal system could not be relied upon, despite heroic efforts from Black activists and investigators.
Black women survivors, including Taylor, faced both individual attackers and an institution of white supremacy that thrived on denigrating imagery of Black women. In her seminal work Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts wrote that Black women have been “exiled from the norm of true womanhood” since slavery. Legal scholar Patricia A. Broussard argues that the racialized Jezebel stereotype, which depicts Black women as promiscuous and impure, influenced cultural perception of their rape accusations. Black women were deemed “unrapeable,” their bodies so dehumanized that they couldn’t be violated. Most of these prejudices, Roberts asserts, can be traced back to the notion that Black women were an impure contaminant on society.
The flagrant, regular, and unpunished assault of Black women could not have been possible without the simultaneous performative worship of sanctified white womanhood. It was an assurance that womanhood could be placed on a patriarchal pedestal of idolized white male chivalry and reverence without acknowledging that its definition of womanhood was confined to whiteness. In Marshall, the protagonists battle against this protection of white femininity, but only as it pertains to Marshall’s ability to discredit a white rape victim, thereby facing a daunting a history of futile attempts to favor a Black man’s word. But while the racial dynamics between a Black man and white woman are made clear, the existence of Black women is rendered irrelevant to the narrative. The lead female role is a deceitful white accuser.
While a recent review of the film opined that “the entire case rests on proving a woman lied about being sexually assaulted… it’s colossally bad timing for such a narrative,” such attitudes disregard not only the harsh reality of the history of racial prejudice, but the fact that privileged white plaintiffs (such as the woman depicted in Marshall) were socially constructed as the ideal opposite to Black womanhood. So long as white women are lauded and protected, so long as they can participate at the privileged level of the oppressor, then they can claim a victory for womanhood itself.
The racist and sexist tropes employed to tarnish Black women as immoral and sexually available are front and center in The Rape of Recy Taylor. These beliefs were evident in courtrooms and police interrogations of Black victims, including Taylor, who were often accused of being prostitutes or promiscuous. The Rape of Recy Taylor reflects the presumption that a Black woman wasn’t deserving or worthy of justice. When Betty Jean Owens was gang raped in Florida in 1959 by four white men, the defendants upheld the Jezebel stereotype to unsuccessfully smear Owens’ reputation. During the trial, they referred to her as an “(n word) wench” whose words could never be trusted over that of white boys. The four rapists were ultimately convicted, a seminal achievement in Black women’s legal history.
While the grassroots anti-rape activism highlighted in The Rape of Recy Taylor is zealous, organized, and identifies sexual violence as a consequence of white male supremacy, the documentary makes clear that such activism was ultimately no match for a fundamentally corrupt and racist legal system. As a witness states in the film, the white male jury and law enforcement officials dealing with Recy’s case “just couldn’t see her” because her reputation was tied to racial prejudice. Taylor’s experience was not an anomaly; history is littered with the stories of Black girls and women violated by white men and faced with an uphill and often futile battle in seeing their assailants punished for their crimes.
Historians, including Estelle Freedman and McGuire, have uncovered numerous cases—such as the rapes of Gertrude Perkins, Bessie Creech, or Flossie Hardman—where all white juries failed to indict. This did not stop Black women from speaking their truth or politicizing their rape as a national epidemic. While the historical retelling of the civil rights movement tends to focus on Black male heroes, including Marshall, countless Black women activists cut their civil rights teeth on anti-rape initiatives, and were later key organizers in the movement’s boycotts, unions, and protests. These groups and individuals, wrote McGuire, helped spread Black women’s stories through “union halls, churches, NAACP chapters, barbershops, pool halls, and juke joints,” on the pages of activist newspapers and on postcards mailed to political representatives.
In fact, one of the NAACP investigators who travelled to hear Taylor’s testimony was none other than Rosa Parks, who routinely gathered assault testimony from Black women and brought widespread attention to their cases. While history has memorialized Parks as an elderly woman too tired to submit to Jim Crow laws, she was in fact “a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an antirape activist.” The Rape of Recy Taylor and At the Dark End of the Street envision Parks not as someone defined through a single incident of passivity, but as an investigator who took sexual assault in particular as her own cause, whose crusade to “protect Black women” led to her bus protest. The erasure of Parks’ sexual assault activism means that Black women’s specific experiences stay hidden. Instead, their participation is used to conveniently prop up the broader narratives that favor either white and/or male heroes. Parks, alongside JoAnne Robinson, Ella Baker, Esther Cooper, and other Black women activists, stand alongside the giants of the civil rights era.
And, of course, the female survivors who chose to speak out paved the way for anti-rape movements decades later. As McGuire notes, in the late 20th century “when radical feminists finally made rape and sexual assault political issues, they walked in the footsteps of generations of Black women.” Our modern understanding of “rape culture” sees sexual assault not simply as a random act of violence, but rather as representative of systemic misogyny and power. This discourse echoes Black women’s pioneering crusade to have their rapes recognized as a ritualized assault driven mainly by prejudice and power. Their boldness was unprecedented, and their example resonates in today’s movement to make women’s experiences with sexual assault public and known.
Today, the impact of their testimony lives on—but so does white supremacy’s gendered implications. Black women continue to live with the legacy of historical prejudices and injustices, while also battling with a patriarchal society that preys on women and a judicial system that victimizes Black Americans. Indeed, recent studies show that one in five Black women have been raped in their lifetime.
We cannot fully appreciate the stories told in Marshall without also understanding the women’s histories that continue to stay in the shadows. And we cannot grapple with the injustices faced by women speaking out on sexual assault without acknowledging that women do not exist as a socio-historical monolith. What we take from films like Marshall should not simply be the tale of a single civil rights hero, but rather the recognition of the historical and continued sexualized racism and violence.
As Bouie wrote in the aforementioned Slate piece, current racist violence cannot simply be seen as “neo confederate ideology” but rather “fear—of Black power and Black sexuality.” The acknowledgement of this fact makes the significance of films such as The Rape of Recy Taylor even more clear: to give further depth to our understanding of how white supremacy operates, and to remind us that Black women’s voices and unique experiences must be equally heard and celebrated as what they are—cornerstones of both feminist and American history.
Indeed, Recy Taylor’s story is inexorably bound to the legal drama depicted in Marshall. Both films are connected in a tragic history that resonates today.