Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 11, 2018)
The first African-American Supreme Court Justice, 2017’s Marshall takes a look at the life of Thurgood Marshall. Set in 1941, we meet Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) as a young civil rights lawyer who works for the NAACP.
In Connecticut, white socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) asserts that her African-American driver Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) raped and assaulted her. Along with local attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), Marshall mounts a defense of the accused chauffeur.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, “biopics” usually take one of two paths. Either they attempt a broad overview of their subject’s lives, or they focus on a short period of time that seems crucial.
I usually prefer the latter approach, as the former tends to feel rushed and thin. A glimpse of a person that sticks to a fairly tight space offers more room for depth.
While I’m glad Marshall doesn’t attempt to cover the entirety of Thurgood Marshall’s life and career, I can’t claim it offers a particularly introspective look at the man, unfortunately. Although the movie manages to remain consistently entertaining and involving, it doesn’t really tell us much about Marshall himself.
That’s because Marshall really acts more as courtroom drama than as biography. Every once in a while, we get tidbits related to Marshall’s life and career – mainly via spotty glimpses of his wife Buster (Keesha Sharp) – but we don’t learn a whole lot about him.
This makes Marshall a curious affair. As a courthouse potboiler, it provides solid – if predictable – entertainment. We’ve seen scores of stories such as this, and Marshall embraces every cliché it can find – from the haughty judge to the snobby prosecutor to the earnest defendant to the lying accuser, there’s not much new on display here.
But that doesn’t make this a bad drama, and Marshall does pretty well when it explores the legal side of things. It allows the Marshall and Friedman relationship to develop naturally – albeit predictably – and gives us the courthouse sparks we desire.
Which would be fine if Marshall didn’t intend to shed light on its legendary subject. Tell this story with a fictional protagonist and I don’t care about its lack of depth, but since the film comes with expectations of an actual biography of sorts, the absence of true substance becomes a liability.
So if you go into Marshall with the expectation of something in the A Few Good Men domain, you’ll probably like it. If you hope to learn much about Thurgood Marshall, though, you’ll likely encounter disappointment. This is an enjoyable ride but not a deep one.
Footnote: stick around through the credits to hear some quotes from Thurgood Marshall himself.