Thurgood Marshall — the pioneering civil rights lawyer who argued Brown vs. Board of Education and became the first African-American Supreme Court justice — deservedly receives the biopic treatment with “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hudlin. Chadwick Boseman once again tackles a legendary figure of American history as Marshall (he also inhabited Jackie Robinson and James Brown). “Marshall” takes a look at the period of time before the civil rights movement, when Marshall was an NAACP lawyer in the 1940s, traveling from city to city representing clients who were likely accused of crimes due to their race.
“Marshall” plucks one case from the files for its story, to illustrate the type of man he was and the causes for which he fought. For a film simply called “Marshall,” you do expect to get a wider slice of his life, which is relegated to onscreen text. In fact, he ultimately becomes an ensemble player in his own eponymous film.
The choice of case comes from screenwriter and Bridgeport, Conn., lawyer Michael Koskoff, who had a prior knowledge of this 1941 trial and tapped his screenwriter son, Jacob, to collaborate on the screenplay. It’s a rape case involving a Greenwich socialite, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), who accused her African-American driver, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of sexual assault. This case has the allure of sex, violence and racially charged politics, and illustrates that racism wasn’t just a Southern problem — Mayflower Yankees were complicit too.
Pairing up with Marshall is local insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who steps in to help the out-of-state Marshall get admitted, and ends up arguing the entire thing, when the tough Bridgeport judge (James Cromwell) only allows Marshall as counsel at the table — he’s not allowed to speak. So this is a courtroom drama that hamstrings the confident orator Marshall. He’s allowed one rousing speech, to reporters, so Gad gets the meatiest moments; he steals this whole movie right out from under Boseman.
“Marshall” is inspiring, to be sure, and deftly illustrates the connection between the African-American and Jewish communities who suffered tremendous racism at home (against the backdrop of World War II it’s even more dramatic). It’s a wonderful showcase for Gad’s chops beyond comedy, and he and Boseman have great chemistry as unlikely friends and allies.
However, “Marshall” fails its audience in the portrayal of the details of this controversial and provocative case. The film asks us immediately to not believe the alleged rape victim; our hero, Marshall, believes Spell when he says he didn’t do it. But the film muddies the waters with a series of unreliable flashbacks illustrating the various scenarios described by those involved — her version, his version, and finally the truth. But the flashbacks aren’t attributed to a source and the images are powerful. We don’t know who to believe, and the film doesn’t take enough care to establish the truth for the audience. One of Friedman’s heroic moments comes when he questions Eleanor, demanding to know if she was drunk or lonely in her marriage. That victim-blaming doesn’t sit well at all.
While Boseman is predictably terrific and Gad rises to the occasion, this is a formulaic courtroom drama. It rouses the audience, but doesn’t feel fully earned. The great Thurgood Marshall biopic is still yet to be made.