Thurgood Marshall lived a long, fascinating life. He argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court including, most famously, Brown vs. Board of Education. He was also the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court. None of this is explored in this movie. The movie isn’t a biopic detailing the life of the man it’s named after, but instead, it’s a movie that focuses solely on one case early in his career.
In the early 1940s Thurgood Marshall was an attorney for the NAACP, traveling the country and defending clients who were being persecuted in the courtroom due to their race. The person in question for the case that is covered by the movie was a man named Joseph Spell, a chauffeur who was accused of a wealthy, upper class white woman of raping her multiple times before throwing her over the side of a bridge attempting to drown her. When Marshall arrives in Connecticut, he’s faced with a world of obstacles. Not being a member of the Connecticut bar, Marshall is not allowed to talk in the courtroom, meaning that the reluctant Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad) is forced to be the one to speak for the defense while Marshall sits silently at the table, communicating to Friedman through brief notes and raised eyebrows.
The movie plays out more like an old fashioned legal drama than any kind of biopic. Marshall and Friedman spend almost as much time playing detective as they do in the courtroom. They investigate the scene of the crime, interview witnesses, try to create a timeline of events, all trying to prove what happened on the night in question. The story revolves around the characters of this particular case first and foremost. While we get a few glimpses of Thurgood Marshall’s home life at the time, that part of the movie is more of a backdrop for the main aspect of the story that takes place in the courtroom. As far as legal dramas go this one pulls out all the stops. Anything you might find in a John Grisham novel seems to crop up here, from making a star witness look like a fool on the stand, to unexpected evidence coming seemingly out of nowhere, to large theatrical displays made to prove a point, it’s all on display here. But what makes the movie work so well is the charismatic presence of its two lead actors.
Chadwick Boseman is about to explode in popularity. He’s already played famous historical figures twice before, Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up. His biggest role to date though, was as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War last year. Next year Boseman will once again be playing the ruler of Wakanda in Black Panther, a movie that by all accounts is expected to be huge. Black Panther will likely throw Boseman into full blown superstardom. His performance in Marshall shows that Boseman is more than ready. Boseman takes the role of Thurgood Marshall head on. His portrayal of Marshall brings to life a young, confident, brilliant man, taking on the world and having every intention of winning.
Josh Gad portrays Samuel Friedman, the lawyer who is forced to take on the case when Thurgood Marshall is forbidden from speaking in the courtroom. Despite Friedman being a second tier character when compared to Thurgood Marshall, Josh Gad seems to have almost just as much screen time as the title character. In many ways, the movie is just as much about Friedman’s storyline as it is Marshall’s. Friedman is the character that has an arc throughout the movie. Initially reluctant and uncomfortable in a criminal case, as the movie unfolds we get to see Friedman grow not only more confident in his role in the trial, but becomes more invested as well. We can see Friedman growing more and more passionate about the outcome of the case as the movie progresses. In contrast Marshall is more or less the same character at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. But that’s exactly what the movie needs Marshall to be. He’s the strong, powerful rock that Friedman clings to in the beginning of the case. Marshall’s motivation remains unwavered throughout the movie, and it provides a focal point for the rest of the characters. Some of the strongest scenes are the ones just between these two characters as they work together trying to solve the case.
Without some of the most important points of his life, this can’t really be called a biopic of Thurgood Marshall, even though the movie is named after him. But as a legal thriller based on a true case, Marshall is a well constructed movie that shines a light on a rather small part of a great man’s full life. It’s a story that, as it turns out makes for a pretty great movie, and even though it’s only a small aspect of Marshall’s entire life, it’s results in a movie that’s well worth watching.
Tags: Chadwick Boseman, film, Josh Gad, marshall, movie, reivew, thurgood marshall