The bitterest irony, of course, is that the case that put Thurgood Marshall on the map is one on which he had to sit second-chair. The detail means that, yes, Reginald Hudlin's Marshall, a biographical account of a specific chapter in the man's life, is told as the story of a criminal case argued by a white man with Marshall's help. That will, of course, turn heads and/or raise eyebrows, particularly since it seems that a succession of movies about black characters, either based on reality or fictional, rely on a definition of their relationship to white characters in the story. This is, for a variety of reasons, lazy storytelling, but here it isn't so simple.
There is an emotional and thematic logic to the trick in Michael and Jacob Koskoff's screenplay, which makes the salient point with this story that even the greats in a certain profession must start nabbing attention somewhere. That extends to Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), who arrives in Connecticut in 1941 to act as the defense lawyer in a rape trial, only to come up against a judge so annoyed by his sudden appearance in the courtroom that he denies the man (who would ultimately have the last laugh to whatever degree that meant, as he went on to become the first African-American to achieve a seat as Supreme Court Justice) the privilege to cross-examine witnesses or to give opening or closing statements.
It's something of a smaller injustice than the one that faces the defendant of the trial, but one can tell that the townsfolk certainly treat them as equal ideas. Railroading a man of color (which, of course, is not exactly the phrase of choice they use) for the violent sexual assault and attempted murder of a white woman would seem a kind of pastime for them, especially as the man in question, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), was the valet for the woman, a socialite named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), and her notoriously violent husband. She says he raped her and then drove to a bridge from which he pushed her into a lake. He, for fear of reprisals, stayed silent on the matter.
Marshall is paired with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), an insurance lawyer unprepared for a criminal trial and unwilling to put himself into such a spotlight, at least at first. He's essentially tossed into the fray, though, when the judge (played by James Cromwell) refuses to hear arguments from Marshall and the opposing counsel (played by Dan Stevens) barely attempts to veil his prejudice against Spell. The rest of the film, then, takes on the structure of a buddy-cop comedy starring two lawyers that happens to be resolutely dramatic.
Marshall and Friedman investigate the scene of the crime when they aren't interrogating witnesses on the stand, with the former's meticulousness with the facts and legal jargon and the latter's privilege to speak in the courtroom leading to a pair of men who fight for justice. It's a superhero story writ historical, and the performances from Boseman, who plays Marshall with intimidating resolve, and Gad, whose Friedman comes to grasp a bit of the injustice facing his companion on his own terms, are exceptional. It's not an overwhelming success, playing out as a familiar courtroom drama for much of its length, but Marshall is surprisingly well-performed and thoughtful.
Chadwick Boseman (Thurgood Marshall), Josh Gad (Sam Friedman), Kate Hudson (Eleanor Strubing), Sterling K. Brown (Joseph Spell), Dan Stevens (Loren Willis), James Cromwell (Judge Foster), Keesha Sharp (Buster Marshall), Roger Guenveur Smith (Walter White), Barrett Doss (Bertha Lancaster), Zanete Shadwick (Irene Lancaster), John Magaro (Irwin Friedman).
Directed by Reginald Hudlin and written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff.
Rated PG-13 (mature thematic content, sexuality, violence, language).
Released on October 13, 2017.