Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) is best known as the lawyer who helped desegregate schools by winning Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. He was also the first African-American to become a Supreme Court Justice (he served from 1967-91). He was a smart and brave man who fought hard for civil rights in this country. There is now a feature film about him, but it is not exactly the movie you would expect.
Marshall is not a biography. It does not show how Thurgood Marshall grew up to be the man he became, though it does show him on that path. It is a dramatization of one case that he tried when he was a lawyer, but that case is not his most famous one. The film takes place in 1941 when Marshall was working for the NAACP. His job was to defend those who had been wrongly accused due to their race. He is called upon to go to Connecticut to defend a black man, Joseph Spell (strongly played by Sterling K. Brown from NBC’s ensemble drama This is Us), who had been accused of raping and attempting to kill a white woman (Kate Hudson). The film is about the case and the racism that it causes to boil over. But it is mainly about the begrudging partnership that develops between Marshall and his co-counsel, Sam Friedman.
Thurgood Marshall is played by Chadwick Boseman, an actor who now seems to have become the go-to for a film like this after having already played Jackie Robinson (2013’s 42) and James Brown (2014’s Get on Up). He brings a cockiness, intelligence and movie star charisma to the role. I am not sure how accurate his portrayal is to the real Thurgood Marshall, but it is perfect for a film like this. Marshall is similar to John Ford’s 1939 filmYoung Mr. Lincoln (a film that focuses on a case Abraham Lincoln tried when he was a lawyer), but about Thurgood Marshall and stylistically updated for 2017. It is an “and that man grew up to be” story delivered with energy and flash. And Chadwick Boseman brings an old-Hollywood swagger that makes the film surprisingly fun to watch.
Sam Friedman, the white, Jewish lawyer chosen to assist Thurgood, is played by Josh Gad (best known for voicing snowman Olaf in Disney’s Frozen, he can also be seen in next month’s Murder on the Orient Express). Gad is usually a comedic actor and his comic timing is put to pretty good use here. But he plays the character like a man who knows there is more at stake than just one case. The film parallels the civil-rights era racism that Marshall is battling with the World War II era anti-Semitism that Friedman has to deal with. He and his wife (Marina Squerciati from NBC’s Chicago shows) have family in Europe and that is a dark cloud that hangs over his character. Friedman and Marshall make for an enjoyable odd-couple and Boseman and Gad’s chemistry make them an easy pair to root for.
Marshall (113 minutes without the end credits) has been directed by Reginald Hudlin, who mainly works in comedy (this is Hudlin’s first feature film in fifteen years). Though Marshall is largely a period courtroom drama, Hudlin does use comedy to lighten the mood at times. There are messages here about tolerance and fighting for what is right, but the movie is not about those messages. Though they do encounter racism from the town, the judge (the always solid James Cromwell) and their opposing counsel (Dan Stevens in his sixth project this year, including starring on the FX series Legion and playing the beast in Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast), the film deals with it through the case instead of head-on. Hudlin has made an old Hollywood star vehicle that just so happens to be about an important real life figure.
Father and son screenwriting team Michael (a lawyer from the area the story takes place, writing his first screenplay) and Jacob Koskoff (who co-adapted 2015’s Macbeth) hew very close to the details of the real case. Some of the more personal elements involving Marshall and Friedman are dramatized, but the case goes down much as it did in real life. This is not an “important film.” It is a fun one that just happens to be telling a story that is still very relevant today.
The thing that surprised me the most about Marshall is how entertaining it was. It may not have been the movie I was expecting, but I thoroughly enjoyed the movie it turned out to be.
4 out of 5
Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall
Josh Gad as Sam Friedman
Sterling K. Brown as Joseph Spell
Kate Hudson as Eleanor Strubling
Dan Stevens as Loren Willis
James Cromwell as Judge Foster
Keesha Sharp as Buster Marshall
John Magaro as Irwin Friedman
Directed by Reginald Hudlin
Written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff