Black women aren’t often recognized or remembered for their extensive contributions in history. However, with her roles in film and on television Keesha Sharp is making sure that some of these women are getting the recognition that they deserve. Last year, the Girlfriends alum starred in the critically acclaimed FX series, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J .Simpson as Dale Cochran, the wife of the infamous attorney Johnnie Cochran. Her most recent role as Buster Marshall – the wife of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the legal thrill Marshall proved that Sharp is ready to give more unsung women the spotlight.
When Sharp heard a film about Thurgood Marshall's life was in development, she jumped at the chance to be involved. "I said, ‘Oh my god, they're doing something on Thurgood Marshall!,’” Sharp told me just a few days after she’d been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her role in the film. “I was so excited even to be able to audition for it, to be honest, because [Thurgood Marshall] is someone in this country I don't think we know enough about. We know the two major things, but a lot of us don't know the struggles and the fights. I think it's important for us to see and to know that we can do that too. It gives us inspiration that this man started someplace where we all can start. We can all be advocates for things that we believe in. It was exciting to be a part of it, and I was so really blessed when I got the role.”
Since she was such a private woman, there is little known about Vivian “Buster” Marshall, but we do know how much she sacrificed for her husband and for Black people's education in this country. “She had cancer while [Marshall] was fighting [Brown v. Board of Education], but she did not tell him," Sharp explained. “She didn't want him to be distracted in any way. It tells you so much about her just knowing that information. We know Thurgood Marshall, we know what an activist he was, but what we don't know is how important Vivian was in the shadows. She was holding him up and being the strength for him and encouraging him to continue the fight. Even knowing that she had cancer [she] wouldn't tell him because Brown vs. the Board of Education was more important to her than her personal fight."
Though Marshall is set just before World War II when Thurgood Marshall was an NAACP lawyer traveling across the country trying to save innocent Black people, Hudlin, and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskof were very deliberate about showing Marshall's home life. Though they had a happy marriage, Buster and Marshall struggled with infertility and miscarriages. For Sharp uncovering the lens through which Buster saw the world was essential to telling the complete story of Marshall's early career. “It’s the same feeling that I had with Dale Cochran," she reflected. “These were women that didn't want the limelight, so there was very little information on both of them. I had to grasp on to the things that I could. Knowing the information about her and terms of the Brown v. Board, knowing she had had several miscarriages over and over and over -- they had lost so many babies; I had to draw from all the little information that I could get from her to understand who [Buster] was. I think it was pretty strong in terms of knowing that she lost so many children yet she kept fighting and hoping that one day it would work out. Meanwhile, she was supporting her husband going to the South, which was so dangerous at that time. Every single time there was a risk that he might he not return. It was that important for both of them for him to try and do this, to fight the fight even though it might not bring him home. You have that struggle, and then you also have the struggle of knowing you're sick."
Marshall has stood out amongst other biopics in recent years because of its tone. The film is not a straightforward telling of Marshall’s life and career. Instead, it focuses on a pivotal case when Marshall defended Joseph Spell (portrayed by Emmy- winner Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who was accused of raping his white employer (Kate Hudson). Considering our current political climate as well as race relations in this country – it's no wonder that Marshall has been so striking for audiences. “I love what they did because you can listen —you can make a movie, and it can be in your face but what happens sometimes is that people will shut off," Sharp said. “There's a place for those movies, but what I think they did brilliantly with this film is that it is a courtroom thriller that takes place in the 1940's and Thurgood Marshall fought this case in real life. This [story] is real. It’s not just focused on the racism; it's focused on this case that happens to have all those elements involved. It takes that route instead of the other route; I just think people are more receptive to it. People will then go home and Google Thurgood Marshall to learn more about him. People will really step back and say, ‘Wow, yes, that man might have been killed just because he slept with a woman -- a white woman.' I think it just opens up people's minds to the struggles of that time and the struggles of today. It was just brilliantly executed, in my opinion.”
Since Marshall was so well-received, the NAACP nomination was the icing on the cake for Sharp who had been nominated previously for her work on Girlfriends and for her role as Trish Murtaugh on the hit Fox series Lethal Weapon. It was also a moment to reflect on how far The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has come. “Think about it, Thurgood Marshall really saves the NAACP in the 1940's, “ Sharp said emphatically. “He saved them. They were struggling financially and this case, this particular case is what pushed NAACP, and thank God for that. The NAACP was so important then and even now for people of color — all people of color to fight for equality. So to be nominated by the NAACP for this film is surreal. It's just so right. It feels kind of perfect, and I couldn't be prouder to be a part of this film.”
As Sharp continues to move forward with new projects –which will hopefully include an action flick, she is determined to continue playing strong women. “I keep getting these strong women, and I like to think it's because I'm a strong woman, " she reflected. "I think it's important for little girls, little boys, big girls, and big boys to see these kinds of strong, powerful women whether they're behind the scenes, like Buster and Dale or Trish, who's in front. “I think for us to see these women own who they are and fight for who they are. I think that's important as well for women that want to work at home. I love that I’ve been able to show all these different women. Buster is strong for her husband. She wanted to be behind the scenes but fight the fight in another way. Then you have Dale who was there behind the scenes doing the same thing. She didn't want to be seen. She couldn't stand doing interviews. She could have been on Entertainment Tonight and all those things, but that's not who she was. Then you have Trish who is the high powered defense attorney. She's upfront. She loves being a wife, she loves being a mother, and she loves being an attorney who fights for those who can't fight for themselves. So, I think it's important. I love being the woman who’s playing these roles. People can look at it and say I want to do that; I want to be that or have respect for women no matter what role they decide to take. For me that's important, and I feel blessed to do that. Now, as an actor, I love playing everything. So, there are women that aren't as strong and there are women that are fighting for strength for different reasons — you'll see me do those things as well, but I do appreciate the roles that I've been able to play.
Despite her numerous roles on television and in film, Sharp doesn't want to to be known solely for her work in front of the camera. The Brooklyn native is also a force behind the scenes as a producer and director. “I directed an episode of Are We There Yet?" she said. “I'm a director, and I'm also a producer. We're producing some things as well, and I have a show that we're pitching. I can't say what it is because I don't know which network is going to pick it up yet, but I'm super excited about it. I'm a woman who wants to do it all, and I also want to show other women and young boys and young girls that they can do it all. You can do it all. You can do it well, and it's possible. It really is. It's possible if you keep working hard and fighting."
The 49th annual NAACP Image Awards will air January 15, 2018, at 9 PM ET on TVOne
Lethal Weapon airs Tuesdays at 8 PM ET on Fox.
Marshall will be released January 9 on Blu-Ray.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami