There’s a sense of fun and rapscallionism to Marshall that it would be easy to overlook the small moments of audacity. It’s a buddy lawyer movie wrapped in a mystery that is not all that mysterious. Anyone who has ever read an Erle Stanley Gardner story or seen an episode of Law & Order will not be shocked by the ‘twist’.
The originality of Marshall lies in how it doesn’t behave like a biopic most of the time. There should be dozens of Hollywood movies about Thurgood Marshall, the first black supreme court justice and architect for the legal argument for civil rights. Instead, there is just this one. Part of the audacity is that Reginald Hudlin and his writers Jacob and Michael Koskoff, choose one of Marshall’s earlier cases. Marshall is not about, as one might assume, Brown v. Board of Education or any of the other landmark civil rights cases. It is about Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.
A black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of rape by Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is assigned the case by his boss at the NAACP to help bolster name recognition for the floundering organization and hopefully attract more donors. The case is neither legendary nor does it set a precedent.
Marshall has more in common with Brian Helgeland’s 42* than with Ava DuVernay’s Selma, but it borrows heavily from both playbooks. In one of the too few scenes involving Buster (Keesha Sharp) Thurgood’s wife, the two are at an all-black dinner club having drinks with Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett). Hughes and Marshall’s conversation is rife with snide asides as the two argue over not just the merit of the case, but the merits of actually fighting for, and writing about civil rights. To throw fuel onto the fire, no one seems to believe Thurgood should waste his time. Innocent or not, they believe a victory or a loss would not be beneficial to the cause.
Boseman continues to plead his case for being one of the most magnetic and talented actors working today. Boseman plays Thurgood as a man driven by something greater than himself, but who also is torn by the tragedies at home as well as the temptations of the road. He has a great confidence about him as he struts across the screen. There’s an aura of Paul Newman about Boseman with the way he smirks and seems to be able to laugh naturally and freely.
Hudlin and the Koskoff brothers have chosen to focus on a case that serves no real purpose except to see simple basic justice done. The downside is Thurgood Marshall, while the main character, is not the sole focus. His reluctant sidekick and envoy into the upper echelon of white Greenwich society, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), is a driving engine of the plot. If done wrong, the idea of an iconic and iconoclastic civil right’s leader having to share the spotlight with a white character in a movie bearing his name could be groan inducing.
But the Koskoff’s do something interesting. They use this as an opportunity to explore the different levels of prejudice. Sam is Jewish and his Jewishness is as much a part of Marshall as Thurgood’s blackness is. The movie never equates the two but shows how each one suffers their own form of oppression.
Such as when Sam and Thurgood storm into a private dinner club in which the Prosecuting Attorney Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens) is a member. The other members are aghast and not just because Thurgood is a black man. As they approached the table where Willis is eating we overhear his conversation, “Quite frankly I’m with my Father. Just let Hitler and the Reds fight it out.”
Sam is involved with the case because the mercurial winds of fate have seemingly demanded it. He runs an insurance law firm with his ‘idiot brother’ Irwin (John Margaro). Sam practices insurance law and has no interest in getting involved. But the NAACP needs a local lawyer to submit an application for out of state counsel. Friedman refuses only to learn Irwin has already filed the application and Sam must submit it to the court.
Unfortunately for Sam, and humiliating for Thurgood, Judge Foster (James Cromwell), denies the submission with a caveat. Marshall may be present and sit at the counsel table but he is forbidden to speak and or question witnesses. He silences Thurgood and orders Sam to try the case. It’s something out of a sitcom or buddy comedy as the in over his head hero is thrust into the one job he doesn’t want. The comedy is undercut by Thurgood’s anger and public humiliation by the Judge.
Gad is buoyant and engaging as the prickly reluctant crusading lawyer who gradually begins to understand Thurgood Marshall’s mission. He is not a bigoted man, or so he believes. It’s only through his action does he discover how damning his previous inaction actually was.
There is a point where Sam and Thurgood are beaten by local men wishing to intimidate them into dropping the case or take a plea. Thurgood is saved by an armed black bartender while Sam is saved by the late arrival of Irwin. Sam returns home he finds his wife crying. When he asks her what’s wrong she informs him that “My Aunt has been sent to Krakow.” Sam then responds in Yiddish, “The whole family? The kids too?”
Michael and Jacob Koskoff are a white father and son writing team. But unlike most white screenwriters they come with an odd pedigree. Michael is an actual lawyer who represented members of the Black Panthers during the New Haven Black Panther trials during the seventies.
A black director with white Jewish screenwriters, one of whom is entrenched with civil rights movement, himself allows for a nuanced look at the degrees of oppression. While Sam faces much antisemitism, he still has more power and rights than Thurgood does. It takes Sam more than a little bit to come to fully understand the reason and passion of Thurgood. In one scene Thurgood and their client Joseph Spell exchange stories about how their grandparents escaped slavery.
Hudlin and his cameraman Newton Thomas Sigel chose to give us a slick and immaculate series of images. Marshall seems more theatrical than lived in. There’s an antiseptic quality to the overall production design. Everything looks brand new. The camera, while always in the right place, is never in an interesting one.
I didn’t like how Hudlin and the Koskoff’s left Strubing’s story unresolved. It’s implied that her husband is abusive and Marshall shows her being led out of the courtroom reluctantly by her husband. The lack of resolution with Strubing left me with a queasy feeling. I’m not sure if that is the feminist or the whiteness in me.
The main overall problem Marshall has is with its women. Thurgood’s wife Buster is left to the margins as a newly expecting Mother. She has no real arc except to act as an emotional plot device for Thurgood. The same can be said of Sam’s wife Stella (Marina Squerciati). Outside the scene where she informs Sam of her aunt’s fate we rarely see or hear from her.
This is not to say they don’t try. Marshall is staying at local NAACP representative’s house. The man and his family welcome Thurgood but the wife is dubious. She expresses doubt about Spell’s innocence. “A woman doesn’t just lie about being raped. If she is lying you’ll have to find out why.” It’s not that Marshall doesn’t understand women are oppressed because it clearly does. It just tends to not focus on it as much as other forms of oppression.
The movie is by no means insincere. At the end, Thurgood moves on to another town, another case, and another innocent who needs a voice. A young black boy is accused of killing a cop. He is greeted by some people at the train station. The parents and attorney of the boy. They are in real life Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin, and Benjamin Crump. The parents of Trayvon Martin and the attorney for both Martin and Michael Brown.
Marshall is never as great as it wants, or should be. But it is an enjoyable, if a little bumpy, ride. The strength of its power comes from the very simple belief that underlines the entire movie: Black Lives Matter. Still, I can’t help but hope for another movie about Thurgood Marshall if only to get a movie about Thurgood Marshall. Maybe that’s the point though: it’s not about just one man.
*Editors’s Note: We previously had the wrong director for 42. We have corrected our error and apologize for the mistake.