Director: Reginald Hudlin
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell, Dan Stevens, Kate Hudson, Keesha Sharp, John Magaro, Jussie Smollett, Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas
Chadwick Boseman seems to be your go-to-guy for playing historical figures. Most people probably just know him as Black Panther from Captain America: Civil War. This is his third biopic after playing Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up. In 1941, Thurgood Marshall was the sole lawyer for the NAACP. He was brought on to defend many African Americans on trial as he was a champion at what he did for those that never had a chance. He has been summoned to New York City to defend Joseph Spell (Brown) who has been charged with the rape and attempted murder of the wealthy white woman (Hudson) he works for as a chauffer. Joining him at the bench is Frozen’s Josh Gad as Sam Friedman. He’s an insurance lawyer who has never practiced criminal law before. The catch is that Marshall is an out of state lawyer. Friedman’s leery of taking on the case as he doesn’t want the attention. He finds himself forced into being the head attorney after the racist judge (Cromwell) refuses to let Marshall speak in court. Friedman finds himself far in over his head while Marshall feels like he is defending the future of our nation in a case where race, truth, and consent play key roles in the fate of Joseph Spell.
At the most basic level, Marshall succeeds at inviting audiences into learning about an important figure in the judicial system who became the first African American Supreme Court justice. The ending of the film comes with the traditional scroll about his accomplishments later in life regarding the Supreme Court and his involvement Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. These accomplishments all seem like they would have made for a better movie. Instead, the script by Jacob and Michael Koskoff takes a look at one of his early cases. This keeps a narrowed approach by focusing in on one case instead of taking the traditional route by spanning decades in his life. It’s a common biopic misstep in my opinion to take their Wikipedia page and turn it into a movie.
Much like Hidden Figures, this provides a good history lesson appropriate for younger audiences. It ceases from being too graphic with the crime. Director Reginald Hudlin has a background in directing comedy, and brings out as much humor as possible in this movie giving it that lighter tone. He finds time to have Josh Gad act all flustered and plays up the “buddy buddy” aspect between Friedman and Marshall. The audience I saw it with was thoroughly enjoying themselves cheering and booing along the way as the trial progressed. That’s all fine and dandy, but Thurgood Marshall deserves more.
Marshall is executed as if it’s a made-for-TV courtroom drama. Too much of the movie stays within the confines of the courtroom with occasional flashbacks to the crime in the later half of the movie. This doesn’t allow a chance to build on any of the key players or give a historical context to the time period. The limited setting results in James Cromwell and Dan Stevens giving surface level performances. You know right from the onset that Cromwell’s judge is a racist and that’s all he has to play throughout the entire movie. Stevens takes the easy way out by playing into the jerk, vindicator prosecutor routine. How many times have we seen that before? We’re told we’re supposed to hate them very early on and there’s no chance for depth or understanding of their motives. There’s a nightclub scene early on before Marshall leaves town for the trial where he heads out drinking with his friends Langston Hughes (Smollett) and Zora Neale Hurston (Thomas). Both those characters make a one-scene appearance as a way of stating he had famous friends, which doesn’t really matter to the rest of the movie.
The standout elements come down to the performances given by Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us). Both bring subtly and much-needed depth that clues you in that each character is never showing their full deck. There were very few times where I felt surprised or alarmed during the film, but those shining moments came at the hands of Boseman and Brown. I was torn on whether Spell was actually guilty or not thanks to Brown’s portrayal. I never got this impression from Josh Gad as Friedman. Frankly, I’m torn on him. The character is meant to feel out of place as the Jewish lawyer with no experience hoping to defend an African American man. It’s as if they cast the role looking for an actor very out of place with the rest of his company. I don’t know if that means he did an excellent job portraying that or if that meant he doesn’t seem in control as the actor. Knowing his background, I felt like he was trying too hard to play the laugh when it didn’t always feel appropriate.
Despite it being called “Marshall”, the movie is less about him and his achievements and more about the partnership he and Friedman had on this case with confronting stereotypes. To put it in modern day movie going context, this is the origins story for the career Thurgood Marshall went on to have. Chadwick Boseman also serves as one of the film’s producers. I wish it could have had a bigger budget, a wider scope, and a larger context to really showcase his mission. In the end, what is important is that it will resonate with audiences. People were applauding along in the theater for his efforts. Hopefully this means they went home and did some research to learn a little bit more.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Thurgood Marshall deserves a better movie to tell his story.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS