A towering figure in the social and cultural histories of the U.S., Thurgood Marshall may have been the most effective legal tactician of his time. At age 45, Marshall won the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court that ended segregation in public schools and paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He became the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967 and was a beacon of social progress throughout his 24-year tenure on the court.
Marshall's extraordinary life and career make him a prime candidate for the kind of well-intentioned but superficial biopic often churned out by Hollywood, even when an incisive documentary seems a far better idea. Fortunately for all concerned, director Reginald Hudlin's Marshall is not that film.
Focusing almost exclusively on an important but now little known 1941 legal case, Marshall serves up an old-fashioned, character-driven courtroom drama. It also humanizes its larger-than-life central figure and spotlights Marshall's heroic work early in his career. There's nothing remotely gritty or realistic about Marshall — it's engaging, often funny and built for mass appeal, even while establishing a clear but unspoken connection to the social struggles of the 21st century.
By conceiving his film as entertainment, Hudlin elevates a story about the fight for racial equality in America above partisan politics and increases his odds of reaching those who might shy away from a heavy historical drama.
Marshall spent the first 20 years of his career as a star defense attorney for the NAACP. In that role, he continuously traveled the country by train — often venturing into dangerous areas of the Deep South where few people had ever seen a black attorney — to defend innocent men and women facing severe danger in the form of a legal system stacked against people of color.
Marshall focuses on the case of Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur accused of raping his employer, Greenwich, Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing. The case became a tabloid sensation (knocking news of World War II from the top of the front page on many American newspapers) that only increased racial tensions at the height of the Jim Crow era. That few people today are familiar with Spell's story allows Marshall to build suspense regarding the outcome of the trial.
Playing the 33-year-old Marshall is Chadwick Boseman, an actor who recently has developed a considerable talent for portraying historical figures such as Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (Get on Up) in full-blown Hollywood biopics. Boseman's Marshall is charming, charismatic and fully aware that he's almost always the smartest guy in the room.
Marshall's foil in the film is Samuel Friedman (comedic actor Josh Gad), a mild-mannered local insurance lawyer hired to smooth Marshall's entry into upper-crust Greenwich. When the presiding judge (James Cromwell) forbids Marshall from speaking on behalf of his client in court, Friedman must step in and collaborate on the case despite a complete lack of relevant experience. The odd couple's rocky personal and professional relationship adds another dimension to the story and set up the film's most humorous scenes.
The story presented by Marshall suggests that one often must fight from within a deeply flawed system to accomplish meaningful social change. It's a hard lesson from an easy-to-watch film, but one that continues to resonate today.