Thurgood Marshall is, without doubt, one of the most compelling and interesting people in American history. He argued the landmark Supreme Court case that led to the desegregation of public schools, prior to being named to the same court -- the first African American to hold the honor. Either one of those events is a story worth telling. The fact that they happened to the same man is amazing unto itself. However, Marshall, the biopic which stars Chadwick Boseman as the young lawyer years before he would become a household name, decides to tell a very different story, which, while entertaining, fails to generate the gravity of the actual man.
Using the parlance of our modern time, Marshall is the "origin story" of the famous lawyer. In 1940, Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) is a young lawyer for the NAACP who crisscrosses the nation, going wherever African Americans are being arrested and tried simply because of the color of their skin. This leads the young lawyer to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where a white woman has accused her chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of rape. A local lawyer, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), is enlisted simply to help Marshall get the legal approval to defend Spell in a state in which Marshall has not been admitted to the bar, but circumstances force the two to work together, much to the chagrin of both attorneys.
What follows is, for the most part, a pretty standard courtroom drama with all the standard trappings. It's got jury selection strategy, potentially lying witnesses and courtroom theatrics, everything you've come to expect from the overly dramatic version of trials in movies or on television. And that's the film's major problem. Marshall feels like it could have been a TV movie of the week rather than a feature film. The film just has an overall lack of tension, which is odd considering that a man is being railroaded purely due to racism
Of course, what separates this story from many similar films is that this one actually happened. What makes the real-life Joseph Spell case interesting is that, rather than taking place in the Jim Crow American South, it takes place in New England, not the place you automatically expect racism to permeate every decision, even in the 1940s. The idea that "this happens everywhere" is clearly part of the message the movie wants to convey, but there is such a thing as being too subtle.
Instead, Marshall never tries to elevate itself beyond being a courtroom drama. It's a good courtroom drama, to be sure, but the focus on the case and not the people prevents the film from elevating itself to something better. The movie may be called Marshall but the movie isn't about the man, it's about the case.
We never get to know Thurgood Marshall as a person. Only a handful of scenes deal with the man outside of the case at hand, and those are so oddly disconnected that they don't fit within the rest of the story. One gets the impression these were leftover parts of a larger subplot that was cut for time.
And it's too bad, because the actors who are doing the character work do a great job with what they have. Chadwick Boseman is entertaining as the cocky and charismatic Thurgood Marshall. Josh Gad's Sam Friedman does a great job doing a surprising amount of the dramatic heavy lifting as the man caught between doing the right thing and protecting his future in a community that doesn't like that he's taken the case. The unlikely pairing has obvious chemistry together and are the saving grace of Marshall, but you can't help but feel they both could have done more.
With Marshall's October release of a biopic about a popular legal mind dealing with the horrors of racism, it's easy to think that the movie was designed to Oscar bait, but the movie will almost certainly fall short of that bar. There's plenty to enjoy about Marshall, but we should expect more from a movie about one of the most important legal minds of the 20th century. If this was the Thurgood Marshall origin story, perhaps it's time to consider a reboot.