Before you start yawning and think you’d rather die than sit through a dutiful, drowsy, ever-so-virtuous biopic about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to hold a seat on the Supreme Court, get a grip. Marshall, directed with spiky humor and propulsive drive by Reginald Hudlin, is nothing like that. Drawn from a first-time script by Connecticut lawyer Michael Koskoff and his son Jacob, the film shows us a Marshall that the elder Koskoff insists was “a kick-ass, party-loving, courageous and brilliant lawyer.” And as played by a livewire Chadwick Boseman, who has already starred in screen bios of Jackie Robinson and James Brown, the screen Marshall is a sharp-tongued, elbows-out dynamo.
The Koskoffs have made the risky (and smart) move to not to base their screenplay on the 1954 case that made Marshall’s name, the Brown v. Board of Education decision in which the court declared that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Instead, the film swings back to 1941, when the 32-year-old, Howard University graduate and civil-rights lawyer was looking to stir up some righteous NAACP action if he found any upcoming trial that might be corrupted by racism. And Marshall, who died in 1993, found a lulu in the case of Mrs. Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy, Greenwich, Connecticut socialite who accused her black chauffeur and butler, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of raping her and then driving to a bridge and attempting murder by throwing her off it. The white community, led by Strubing’s husband (Jeremy Bobb), was outraged. The police questioned Spell until they got a confession. Sound familiar? That we’re still living with this kind of coercion is one of the things that spikes Hudlin’s crowd-pleasing courtroom drama with this-just-in relevance.
It’s no surprise that Marshall is eager to defend Spell. The problems arise when Judge Colin Foster (James Cromwell), in league with prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), rules that while Marshall can sit at the defense table, he will not be permitted to speak in the courtroom. So a desperate, scrambling Marshall brings on Samuel Friedman (a sensational Josh Gad), a civil-case attorney with no experience in criminal law. That leaves a black man and his Jewish mouthpiece to go up against a brick wall of entrenched northern bigotry.
Boseman and Gad make a terrific team of sometimes comic opposites. But the commitment to justice shown by Marshall and Friedman is as genuine as the prejudice that opens them up to threats and bodily harm. While a few of the supporting actors lean into caricature, Brown – fresh from back-to-back Emmy wins in 2016 and 2017 for The People v O.J. Simpson and This Is Us – brings nuance and powerful conviction to the role of the defendant, a man slow to reveal the truth that could save him. Marshall is a fiercely entertaining film, but not a great one. Hudlin’s sitcom work (Modern Family, New Girl) has led him to put momentum ahead of a deeper resonance. No matter. Charged by Boseman’s dramatic lightning, Marshall gives us an electrifying glimpse of a great man in the making.