If one views Marshall (2017) with the expectation that it will depict the lifetime of its subject—Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), the civil rights stalwart—one may be surprised (as I was) but not disappointed.
Spoiler alert: A potential problem with biographies is that not every moment in even a great person’s life is high drama, and the need to tell the entire story may risk some tedium. Brilliantly, Marshall takes a very different tack.
Our hero, played by Chadwick Boseman (who previously channeled the likes of Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up), is represented in just a slice-of-life story. Here, he is the early up-and-coming troublemaker (in the very best sense of that term), a traveling attorney for the NAACP, seeking to provide aid, in an era given to railroading, to African-American criminal defendants who appear to need the justice only moral troublemaking may help gain.
The story is set in 1941 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where a young Jewish attorney named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is badgered by Marshall into taking the case of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who is on trial for allegedly raping and attempting to murder an upper-class white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens) is clearly too eager to convict the hapless Spell, and he appears to get every advantage from jaded Judge Foster (James Cromwell).
Reginald Hudlin effectively directs, managing an abundance of drama—both in court, with legal theatrics and surprises, and out in town, with its “White Only” drinking fountains, racist bullies, and other elements of a segregated society. Brace yourself for an outcome other than the false dichotomy you may expect, and witness the complexity of motives at play in this labyrinthine, real-life plot.
After its powerful ending, Marshall, with the aid of a few brief, on-screen notes, leaves us to imagine the rest of Thurgood Marshall’s admirable career that included—but by no means ended with—Brown v. Board of Education, a United States Supreme Court case whose importance to civil rights can hardly be overstated. Marshall successfully argued that segregation by race in public education violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection guarantee. He went on to become himself a justice of that court. His was a most storied life, and humanists will leave the theater inspired.
Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)