Directed by: Reginald Hudlin
Premise: Based on a true story. In the 1940s, lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) defends an African American man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman (Kate Hudson). Marshall enlists the help of a Jewish insurance lawyer (Josh Gad).
What Works: Marshall is a courtroom drama and it does its genre well enough. Courtroom dramas are their own kind of detective story with the defense attorneys attempting to find the truth, present it in a convincing way, and acquit their client. This movie works through the same kinds of scenarios and plot beats familiar from any episode of Law and Order and it ought to satisfy the people who like these kinds of movies. Marshall is well cast and it features some very good performances. Thurgood Marshall is played by Chadwick Boseman, who has distinguished himself as the go-to actor for biographical movies with his performances as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up. Thurgood Marshall is written as a man of wit and intelligence as well as moral clarity and Boseman’s screen presence captures Marshall’s public image. Also impressive is Sterling K. Brown as defendant Joseph Spell. The character has a complex relationship with the woman he is accused of attacking and Brown’s performance incorporates all the mixed feelings and compromises of his character. The main cast is rounded out by Josh Gad as Sam Friedman, a Jewish insurance lawyer who ends up leading the defense. Gad is quite good as the reluctant hero and he’s the one character with an arc. Through him the movie does something provocative. Marshall takes place in the 1940s while the Jews are being persecuted in Europe and the movie makes a connection between the discrimination against the black community and similar experiences of Jewish Americans.
What Doesn’t: While Marshall does a decent job telling its story and fulfilling the requirements of a courtroom drama, the movie is mostly a missed opportunity. It plays everything too safe and it is far too reverent. A lot of Marshall’s problems are found in its regard for the title character. The movie doesn’t really tell us much of anything about Thurgood Marshall. He is always held at a distance and the filmmakers never characterize him. This is a frequent flaw of movies about famous and well respected people. Marshall is always right and he constantly speaks with authority. The movie never presents him as a man with flaws and weaknesses. Ultimately, this movie isn’t really about Thurgood Marshall or the defendant Joseph Spell. Marshall is really the story of Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad. He’s the one with a character arc and he’s the most accessible person in the story and indeed much of the plot unfolds from his point of view. And that’s a worthy story to tell but the filmmakers did not seem to realize that Friedman was the real protagonist of their movie and so he’s relegated to a supporting role. Marshall also makes some of the classic mistakes of biographical filmmaking. The movie includes several scenes in which Thurgood Marshall meets other prominent African American figures of his time, namely the poet Langston Hughes and novelist Zora Neale Hurston (played by Jussie Smollett and Rozonda Thomas). These scenes have nothing to do with the thrust of this story. They only exist to show off Marshall’s connections with other famous people. The movie also misses the opportunity to explore some nuance and complexity about sexual assault narratives. The criminal case is about a white woman accusing a black man of sexual assault and—especially coming out at this particular moment—Marshall could have been provocative and relevant to the contemporary audience. But the movie doesn’t actually say very much about any of that.
Bottom Line: Marshall is a by-the-numbers courtroom drama. It’s got good performances and delivers the legal drama that viewers look for in a movie like this. But it’s safe to the point of blandness and the movie does not reveal very much about the life and times of its title character.
Episode: #673 (November 5, 2017)