Thurgood Marshall was a real-life hero whose achievements deserve to be better known. A graduate of the Howard University School of Law, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and successfully argued multiple cases before the United States Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down the legality of segregated public schools. In 1957, he became the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, holding that post until his retirement in 1991.
Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin, focuses on one key incident from Thurgood Marshall’s career—his defense of a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) accused of raping his white employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). That this trial took place not in the deep South but in Bridgeport, Connecticut, did much to draw attention to the perils faced by blacks in northern states.
Thurgood Marshall has to fight an uphill battle in defending Spell, and not just because the defendant is black and the accuser is white. Because Marshall has not been admitted to the Bar in Connecticut, the presiding judge (James Cromwell) allows him to sit at the defense bench during the trial, but not to speak in court. The latter task falls to Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a local lawyer presented as so inexperienced that his every move and utterance must be dictated, puppetmaster-like, by Marshall. In fact, Friedman was an experienced trial lawyer with a reputation for courtroom flair when he took on the Spell case, not the frightened novice with the perpetual deer-in-the-headlights look shown in this film.
Biopics often play fast and loose with history, but Marshall is plagued with this kind of overselling, with the result that the title character is present less as an admirable human being than as a demigod. (For an example of how to present a Civil Rights leader as both heroic and human, see Ava DuVernay’s Selma.). Turning your lead character into someone who always wins also creates a problem when your story depends on there being doubt about the outcome of some event.
On the plus side, Marshall boasts a fine cast. Chadwick Boseman holds everything together with his masterful performance as Thurgood Marshall, and it’s not the actor’s fault if his character is written as too good to be true. Sterling K. Brown does well as the accused man, Joseph Spell, finding depth in a role that could have been a throwaway, and Kate Hudson makes her character a human being rather than a paper cutout. James Cromwell is convincing as the trial judge, and his character is granted the ability to show a little humanity and even to change his mind. Dan Stevens, on the other hand, is saddled with a role that allows him to be little more than a smug villain.
One of the screenwriters, Michael Koskoff, describes Marshall as a “courtroom thriller.” If only it lived up to that billing. Instead, it’s a slog filled with needless details and cheesy flashbacks that belong in a low-budget, made-for-TV movie, not a theatrical release. While most of Marshall concentrates on a single case, various tangential threads are also shoehorned in, from the Holocaust to the Harlem Renaissance (the latter in a shameless name-dropping scene that belongs on the cutting-room floor).
There’s no disputing the achievements of Thurgood Marshall, but it takes more than a worthy subject to make a successful biopic. Marshall isn’t terrible so much as it is mediocre, with fine acting performances somewhat overcoming a predictable screenplay. It’s also overly long at nearly two hours (seldom have I felt so many urges to check my watch during a film). Most unforgiveable, for a film that centers on a high stakes court case, it fails to generate any tension regarding the outcome of the case. What should be great revelations and reversals feel entirely predictable, and the outcome seems predestined from the start. | Sarah Boslaugh