Thurgood Marshall is one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights Movement. As a lawyer working for the NAACP, the future Supreme Court Justice argued many cases involving wrongfully accused African Americans and against racist laws and practices.
The new movie Marshall dramatizes one such case in the strangest way possible.
Marshall is played here by Chadwick Boseman, and he does a fine, fine job lending his considerable onscreen charisma to the role. That is perhaps the movie’s greatest strengths because as presented Thurgood Marshall is, arguably, not a particularly well-developed character over the course of the film’s runtime. Marshall, a bit of opening text tells us, is the sole attorney working for the NAACP, and as such he is frequently traveling from one case to another, defending innocent African Americans against all kinds of charges. But as it is, Marshall is already the crusader for justice. He gives a few anecdotes on his early life, but few say much to tell us how this man became who he is.
That can make the movie a little more frustrating since the more dynamic character is one Sam Friedman (Josh Gad). How did this happen?
As it is, Marshall comes to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a black man accused of raping his wealthy white employer’s wife. As Marshall’s law license makes him a member of the Maryland State Bar Association, he needs a local lawyer to get him legal permission to act as the defendant’s attorney. Friedman, a small time civil lawyer who mostly does work for insurance companies finding technicalities to deny payments, is pushed into the role, but things take an unexpected turn as the judge hearing the case (James Cromwell) refuses to allow Marshall to do anything more than silently sit at the defense table. That forces the very reluctant Sam to become lead attorney despite never working a criminal case before, and he’s reluctant enough due to the fact that when Marshall leaves, Sam will still need to stay in town, and as a Jewish man in 1941, he’s got enough problems of his own. Nazi actions play in the background for multiple scenes, connecting Sam and Thurgood in ways, but the real character development comes as Sam gradually takes the case as the life-or-death matter that it is and becomes more like Thurgood. Marshall may be barred from speaking in the courtroom, but his presence is felt all over the trial, and the defendant may need it as the victim (Kate Hudson) is crying rape and the local prosecutor (Dan Stevens) travels in the same social circles as the judge and is a politically ambitious man to boot.
So, why is this Thurgood Marshall’s story? That’s a good question. Aside from a handful of scenes of Marshall relaxing with his wife, he comes across as a fully formed legal mind. He doesn’t so much change himself as change others around him, making an ally out of Sam after the two lock horns early on. That Marshall has a puckish sense of humor and has no problem tossing around potentially incendiary statements may not help Sam, but it ultimately helps make Sam a better lawyer and a better person. It just would have been nice if this were really more about Thurgood Marshall’s own development into what he would become, and not just a single stop along the way. Boseman’s charisma and screen presence carries the movie far as it is, which is why I am giving it the grade I am of eight and a half Harlem Renaissance cameo appearances out of ten.