‘Marshall’: The Biopic as History Lesson

Chadwick Boseman excels as a young Thurgood Marshall in a film set long before his time as the country’s first African-American Supreme Court justice.

click to enlarge L-R: Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in Marshall. - Photo: Barry Wetcher
Photo: Barry Wetcher
L-R: Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in Marshall.

Chadwick Boseman has cornered the market on African-American historic figures. Having rousingly brought Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (Get On Up) to life, he’s going for a hat trick in Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, embodying the charismatic and forceful civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall.

The film is set long before Marshall’s time as the country’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, before even his career-defining work as head counsel for the NAACP, where he spearheaded the challenge to school segregation that led to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. (Marshall died in 1993 at age 84.) You could argue that Boseman’s epic march through the black pantheon could conclude here, but you would have to assume that Martin Luther King Jr looms like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Richard III or Henry V.

Until then, thanks to director Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang), we have Boseman in fine form, playing Marshall as a man who very easily could be seen as somewhat out of his time. There is a hip, militant flow to this film’s rendering of Thurgood Marshall that could strike modern viewers as little more than a Black Lives Matter updating of the man, a superhero minus the cape and secret identity or a legal lone ranger crossing the country righting race-based wrongs.

Based on an actual court case from 1940, Marshall receives his latest assignment from the NAACP’s Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith), who dispatches him to Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a chauffeur accused of raping and attempting to murder his socialite employer (Kate Hudson). Once the great defender arrives, he’s blocked from speaking in court by the judge (James Cromwell), which leads to him having to draft local lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to serve as his mouthpiece.

To say Friedman is reluctant would be a huge understatement on many levels. And Marshall’s attitude doesn’t make it easy, either. He’s a legal Tony Stark, all attitude, backed up by a sense of infallibility capable of flummoxing anyone unfortunate enough to cross paths with him inside a courtroom (or out of one). To top it off, he’s ready when the moment calls for it to knock a foe or three out with the butterfly grace and power punching capabilities of a heavyweight champion.

All of that obscures the more basic notion that Marshall is the supreme definition of a particular type of black man living during his time. Marshall strides through the segregated world like a defiant man, one who recognizes the limitations others want to place on him but will not allow that to happen. He will be treated as the exact kind of man that he is — a brilliant and quite gifted iconoclast, a black man far better than any man, black or white, he will ever encounter.

In that way, Marshall is the story of a black founding father, the leader of a new American revolution that reminds us of the true intentions behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and dares to force the system of law to adhere to those principles.

But the film is operating within a somewhat conventional framework. This feels like an episode from a procedural legal drama with a bromantically mismatched pair of lawyers. Gad settles into the role of the sidekick, which tweaks the routine dynamic of the white savoir with a black partner cheering from the sidelines. Boseman masters the difficult trick of playing the cockiness to the hilt, while subtly pulling Gad inside that impenetrable bubble just enough for the two of them to form a meaningful bond.

The true revolutionary stroke of genius here is the decision by screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff to set their story during something other than Brown v. Board of Education. Getting to see Marshall before that signature case, and appreciate his undeniable confidence so close to the start of his career, is the perfect introduction to the man. That elevates this from being a pedestrian tale. That Hudlin’s movie seems ordinary in every other way allows for Marshall’s extraordinary, larger than life persona to captivate us all the more. (Now in theaters.) (PG-13) Grade: B

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