Though named after its protagonist/hero, Marshall is not your archetypal biopic. Studying the craft and influence of the very first African-American Supreme Court Justice, instead we delve into the astonishing accomplishments of Thurgood Marshall through just one case, and one that took place early on in his career. This is as much a study of the case itself, and the implications it had in America, as it is about those who were involved in it.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, Thurgood Marshall is played here by Chadwick Boseman, a lawyer who represents the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), representing clients who have been accused of committing a crime purely because they are black. Marshall offers, voluntarily, of course, to work with Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who is to defend himself against rape charges, pitting his word against that of the affluent white woman Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). While Marshall is the best man for the job, the Judge orders he not be allowed to speak in court, and so he must convince a white lawyer to take on the case, which brings us to the mightily reluctant Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) who is in unknown territory with this criminal case.
It’s so much more interesting to peer into this one short period of time in Thurgood Marshall’s life and have it be emblematic of everything he stood for. There’s an appeal too in that it’s not a huge case – significant yes, but he fought bigger in his career. That being said, Hudlin doesn’t get behind the facade at all, we don’t have many intimate moments with the character, unlike in Selma for instance, where we would watch Martin Luther King just have a conversation with his wife in the evening while unbuttoning his shirt. This film is devoid of such subtlety, with most scenes coming in the courtroom. Though the case is an upsetting one with ingrained, sociopolitical implications, Hudlin must be commended for maintaining a light edge in parts, managing to inject humour into proceedings without compromising the poignancy that exists.
There’s also a very strong turn by Boseman who plays the role with such conviction – for Marshall isn’t completely convinced by Spell’s stories, and this adds an interesting element of ambiguity to the film, keeping us on edge as some of the accounts don’t quite add up, as we build towards the final verdict. The film thrives in its courtroom setting too, not to mention the fact it’s a story of the underdog – and it plays up to both notions accordingly, allowing it a licence to be overtly cinematic, and it’s a licence that Hudlin most definitely takes, but thankfully, the results are endearing and not detrimental.