Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) is best known as the lawyer who helped desegregate schools by winning Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. He was also the first African-American to become a Supreme Court Justice (he served from 1967-91). He was a smart and brave man who fought hard for civil rights in this country. There is now a feature film about him, but it is not exactly the movie you would expect.
Marshall is not a biography showing how Thurgood Marshall grew up to be the man he became. It is a dramatization of one case he tried when he was a lawyer, but that case is not his most famous one. The film takes place in 1941 when Marshall was working for the NAACP, defending those who had been wrongly accused due to their race. He is sent to Connecticut to defend a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who had been accused of raping and attempting to kill a white woman (Kate Hudson). The film is about the case and the racism that it causes to boil over. But it is mainly about the begrudging partnership that develops between Marshall and his co-counsel, Sam Friedman.
Thurgood Marshall is played by Chadwick Boseman, an actor who now seems to have become the go-to for a film like this after having already played Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (Get on Up). He brings a cockiness, intelligence and movie star charisma to the role. I am not sure how accurate his portrayal is to the real Thurgood Marshall, but it is perfect for a film like this. Marshall is similar to John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (about Abraham Lincoln when he was a lawyer), but about Thurgood Marshall and stylistically updated for 2017. It is an “and that man grew up to be” story delivered with energy and flash.
Sam Friedman, the white, Jewish lawyer chosen to assist Thurgood, is played by Josh Gad (a Jewish actor best known for voicing snowman Olaf in Disney’s Frozen). Gad is usually a comedic actor and his comic timing is put to good use here. But he plays the character like a man who knows there is more at stake than just one case. The film parallels the civil-rights era racism that Marshall is battling with the World War II era anti-Semitism that Friedman deals with. He and his wife (Marina Squerciati) have family in Europe and that is a dark cloud that hangs over his character. Friedman and Marshall make for an enjoyable odd-couple and Boseman and Gad’s chemistry make them an easy pair to root for.
Marshall has been directed by Reginald Hudlin, who mainly works in comedy. Though Marshall is largely a period courtroom drama, Hudlin does use comedy to lighten the mood at times. There are messages here about tolerance and fighting for what is right, but the movie deals with them through the case instead of head-on. Father-son screenwriting team Michael and Jacob Koskoff hew very close to the details of the real case. Some of the more personal elements involving Marshall and Friedman are dramatized, but the case goes down much as it did in real life.
The thing that surprised me the most about Marshall is how entertaining it was. This is not an “important film.” It is a fun one that just happens to be telling a story that is still very relevant today. It may not have been the movie I was expecting, but I thoroughly enjoyed the movie it turned out to be. 4 out of 5 stars.
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews