Editor’s Note: Marshall opens the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival; see our full coverage here.
I’m actually a big fan of biopics that take the approach that a famous or influential person’s life was interesting and important before the became what they are best known for. Case in point, the film Marshall approaches the life of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall while not really approaching it at all. (Marshall, by the way, is played by Chadwick Boseman, who has previously played the likes of Jackie Robinson and James Brown, but it most likely known for his Black Panther role in the Marvel cinematic universe.)
Instead, it centers on a single case from early in his career as a lawyer for the NAACP, going from hotspot to hotspot (usually in the South) attempting to aide local counsel in defending clients whose cases would never have even made it before a judge if the defendant weren’t black. His life was in constant danger, his wife Buster (Keesha Sharp) almost never saw him, and he was treated as an oddity in the world for just for being a black trial lawyer.
One of the cases that apparently defined Marshall’s career didn’t take place in the South but rather in Bridgeport, Connecticut circa 1941, where Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur, allegedly raped his white employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), while her husband was out of town.
Being an out-of-state attorney and having the presiding judge (James Cromwell) take an instant dislike to him, Marshall was not actually allowed to speak in the courtroom on behalf of Spell, so he instead enlists the help of local lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad). Himself the object of Anti-Semitism on many occasions, he is reluctant to take on the case since he’s already an anomaly in this part of lily-white New England, as typified by opposing counsel Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), whose father is pals with the judge.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang, The Ladies Man) from a screenplay by Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff, Marshall takes a two-tiered approach to telling this story. One is as a compelling, if not particularly hard to solve, mystery about the true events of that night and why either Spell or Mrs. Strubing is lying about what happened. There are some small twists and reveals in the process, but the possibilities about the truth seems fairly limited and obvious.
Still, Boseman’s relentless, razor-sharp focus on cutting through prejudice on his path to the truth is infectious and impressive. Normally brought in for comic relief, Gad is actually quite good as the dialed-back, more seriously minded Friedman, who is concerned for his future in this community once the dust settles and Marshall leaves for his next bout as a social justice warrior.
Both men are harassed at different points in the movie, and we quickly learn that it isn’t just Marshall’s mind that is quick and strong (Friedman is a lover, not a fighter, unfortunately for him). The film scans the surroundings to give us a glimpse at the circus that surrounded this sordid case, an interesting profile of certain jury members, and the home lives of the two attorneys defending Spell, who has a less than perfect record coming into the trial.
As much as you might suspect Marshall of taking the higher ground as a story and pushing itself as noble cinema, instead, it’s not afraid to show the ugliest parts of this case and the citizens of Connecticut. Nor is the movie afraid to portray Marshall the man as something less than perfect, choosing the lives of others over his own family more often than not. In a way, he was cursed with being good at his job, and while the result was the creation of the NAACP legal defense fund, his personal life suffered greatly.
Fueled by powerful performances, Marshall seems particularly relevant today as discussions of white privilege and unjust treatment of people of color in the justice system are just as debated as they were 70 years ago. In a strange yet impressive way, the movie does not attempt to give us glimpses of the man Marshall would become; it’s not looking to grant him sainthood just yet.
Instead, the story simply seeks to portray him as a hard-working lawyer seeking proper and equal justice for his client. Borrowing a bit from such landmark courtroom dramas as Inherit the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird (not the worst films to emulate), Marshall wants to be a bold story of the search for equality while also being a very human profile of a man who would become a legend. Most of the time, the film finds that balance, and the resulting work is impressive in both its epic feel and humble ambition.