by Hope Madden
Thurgood Marshall is among the most fascinating figures in contemporary American history. Too bad his biopic isn’t about him.
Marshall, director Reginald Hudlin’s glimpse at the first black Supreme Court justice’s earlier career as a tireless NAACP lawyer, offers an image of the man by way of one of his court cases.
It’s an interesting case, though probably not the best Marshall case to choose as a focus. It does, however, allow the unearthing of many complex and unfortunately still relevant issues of racism and injustice.
Like a hardboiled detective story turned historical courtroom drama, the film follows the 1941 case of Connecticut Versus Joseph Spell in which a white New England socialite (Kate Hudson) accused her African American chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) of rape and attempted murder.
In the role of Thurgood Marshall is go-to biopic actor Chadwick Boseman. As you might expect given his string of impressive performances, Boseman has brooding, wise-beyond-his-years charisma to spare.
Josh Gad plays Marshall’s unlikely partner-in-justice Sam Friedman, a Connecticut tax attorney who wants nothing to do with this case. He and Boseman share a sometimes comical odd couple chemistry that often works in the film’s favor but just as often does not.
This speaks to one of Marshall’s two major weaknesses: Hudlin can’t find a tone. Too stylized to be a straight biopic, comical enough to feel tone deaf once the seriousness of the subject matter settles in, Marshall rarely finds its footing.
More problematic, though, is the court case itself.
Don’t get me wrong, this case is rife with cinematic elements and historical significance. The problem is that father and son writers Jacob and Michael Koskoff chose a case in which Thurgood Marshall was voiceless.
The presiding judge, capably played by the always welcome James Cromwell, forbade the out-of-state attorney to speak in court. An amazing piece of racially motivated injustice right there, making it another fascinating detail. It also means that we don’t get to see Thurgood Marshall command this court case.
It’s Gad’s Friedman who handles the courtroom drama—which he does quite well—but it leaves us with only some outside the courtroom mentoring and challenges from Marshall, and not enough else.
It may not totally sink a film built on solid performances and engaging material, but it’s enough to keep Marshall from making the kind of lasting impression it should have.