Chadwick Boseman, for all his Black Panther glory, may well be king of the biopic at this stage, having played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and now, the first African-American Justice to sit on the Supreme Court of the USA, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall astutely avoids the main clichés of a biopic (Rise-fall-rise) by focusing the events not on Marshall’s entire life, but rather, using one of his most famous cases as a young man to illustrate through one decisive event what kind of man we are dealing with.
Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) is a young hotshot lawyer from New York, working for the NAACP defending black clients in 1940. He heads to Bridgeport, Conneticut, a rich and affluent white area to take the case of Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur accused of raping his white employer. Marshall arrives because no lawyer in town is willing to take the case, and he becomes involved with Sam Friedman (Gad) a local insurance lawyer who assists Marshall in navigating the racial politics of the town.
Marshall succeeds for a number of reasons. Firstly, the courtroom scenes are not revolutionary, but they are functional in the way we enjoy movie courtrooms. There are suspenseful cross-examinations, a vaguely evil prosecutor, zingy comebacks and objections. It doesn’t break the mold, but it does remind us why this genre is fun. And, most of these scenes are drawn from the court record, such as how the judge did not allow Marshall, someone who did not have a law license from the state, to actually speak. Instead, he had to argue through passing notes to Friedman, the far more inexperienced figure.
Secondly, the actors are very good, from the Judge (James Cromwell), to the defendant, (Sterling K. Brown). Marshall himself may be very far from the actual figure, I wouldn’t know, but here he comes across as an old-fashioned masculine hero of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Gad too does an excellent job with Friedman, and the growing relationship between the odd couple is portrayed well in the film.
Marshall arrives in town with a definite swagger. Even as a young man he has achieved a lot already. Seeing how he seems born to the courtroom despite the handicaps put on him makes us root for him as the protagonist very easily. We also get a decent level of insight into what it was actually like living in those times, especially on the issue of race relations, and historical accuracy is brought forward as something to be aware of, without becoming a patronizing lesson brought into the present day.
Your interest in Marshall will waver depending on which of its elements you may be interested in. It’s a good movie to get through if you’re a history buff, especially about Americana, but also worth watching if you like a courtroom drama.