Chadwick Boseman is one of the top actors working today. He’s made a name for himself in the biographical genre, breaking big in the Jackie Robinson drama 42 and then later going on to play James Brown in Get On Up. With a steady job in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Panther, Chadwick now fits another biographical film, this time portraying Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall looks at a young and future first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) in 1941 as he takes on a case of a black chauffer named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who is accused of raping his white employer Eleanor (Kate Hudson). Marshall works with a successful, but civil lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), and the two unlikely partners battle to break the prejudice of a nation. Looking at the premise of this event, many northern Americans will scoff at the horrid racism that occurred in the south; however, this particular case occurred in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It’s an interesting take, pulling many arms-length liberals into an uncomfortable spotlight.
As I have advocated in previous reviews, biographical films work best when they choose to focus on one sole event in their subject’s past. A defining moment usually encapsulates and humanizes the character more than a rushed run-through of his or her life. This technique has been used successfully in recent films such as Lincoln or Selma. Marshall chooses this path as well and is all the better for it. Choosing a rather smaller event in this incredible man’s life worked wonders for the filmmakers, as they were able to detail their character without the momentous pressures of any of Marshall’s historic accomplishments. The certain anecdotal feel can show how ubiquitous racism was in 1940s America (and unfortunately is today as well), but the small scope of the film also works against it.
The film’s narrowing into a smaller event of Marshall’s life has this particular film become more of an entertaining informative piece rather than a look into who Thurgood Marshall was as a person. There’s certainly enough entertainment from the filmmakers and story, but for a movie entitled Marshall, we end up too focused on this one case rather than on the character.
The film rakes in a fabulous cast on paper, and most of those names do their reputation justice. Boseman brings his frequent intensity to his character, making it very hard to take your eyes off him whenever he’s on screen, and Josh Gad proves that he has the acting chops to star in more leading roles. There were some quality supporting performances too, from an underutilized Sterling K. Brown, to James Cromwell who plays the judge in the case. Unfortunately, two other big names end up letting us down: Dan Stevens and Kate Hudson.
I’ve noticed this problem with performers in many race-related films: they’re too afraid of playing convincing racists. Hudson and Stevens bring over-the-top performances, almost as if afraid the audience will think they’re really racist. And if we look at film history, playing evil historical characters hasn’t brought hate to specific actors; take Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, or Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave they both ended up being nominated for Oscars! The only actor who was able to make their prejudice realistic in Marshall was the veteran James Cromwell, who makes his state of mind seem inevitable rather than a caricature. The unevenness with the adversaries of this story causes the confrontations to fizzle out, softening the dramatic punches.
Nevertheless, Marshall brings an important, historical, and entertaining story to the screen. I never once looked at my watch, and with much of the audience in my theater I rejoiced when justice was done; if only the real world showed some imitation.