It was an interesting choice that instead of going the regular bio-pic route for Marshall, the filmmakers took a specific case Thurgood Marshall had worked on and showed us that. The problem was…it quickly became a run-of-the-mill courtroom drama.
Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) was the first African-American to be named to the United States Supreme Court, where he served for 25 years. This movie shows his early career as a crusading lawyer in an endless fight for civil rights, winning a surprisingly large share of his cases. That’s even more impressive considering the times. Today, we think nothing of O.J. Simpson getting away with killing two white people, but imagine a jury in 1941 hearing a case of a black defendant accused of raping a rich white woman. This was a real case, and it was quite impressive to watch him coach the defense attorney (Josh Gad) on how to proceed. It’s a bit more frustrating to find that, in true Hollywood fashion, the film has its share of dramatizations (i.e. a bar fight where Marshall beats up two guys, Gad getting beaten up by three rednecks, and locals pulling out guns and making veiled threats).
The court case shown involves Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of “This is Us”), who is an employee/driver for a rich couple. He’s accused of raping and attempting to murder Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The NAACP sends Marshall to work on the case. Problems arise when the snotty local judge (James Cromwell) won’t let Marshall represent Spell because he’s not a member of the Connecticut bar. In fact, he can’t even say anything in the court. He can merely sit by and watch the proceedings. That means hiring a local named Sam Friedman (Gad). He’s never tried a criminal case, and deals mostly with insurance fraud. That makes all this a bit more compelling. And it’s certainly interesting to see how Marshall feeds answers to Friedman. Yet I couldn’t help wonder why we didn’t get another case to see instead. We’re told he’s argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court; one against the Board of Education. Heck, he was on the Supreme Court around the time of the riots in Detroit in 1967. Show us one of those periods of his life instead.
I wish the Marshall character wouldn’t have been so one-dimensional. It’s sadly underwritten. His authoritative and charismatic vibe works well, but you want a little more. Maybe some more scenes with his wife Buster (Keesha Sharp, who was sharp). The marriage looked like it may have been showing the strains of pressure from his constant travels; which makes you wonder, was he the only attorney the NAACP was sending out? [side note: what’s with the name “Buster”?]
It was nice to see that Kate Hudson can do something other than silly rom-coms. She’s great in this. We already knew Boseman was capable of this role. He was terrific in other bio-pics, playing James Brown, football player Ernie Davis, and baseball player Jackie Robinson (this movie takes places seven years before Robinson would break the color barrier in the Major Leagues).
For those of you that missed this movie when it started things off on opening night of the San Diego International Film Festival, you’ll get to see it when it opens this weekend.
3 stars out of 5.