Review by C.J. Bunce

The new courtroom drama and biopic Marshall hits theaters across the U.S. beginning today.  Director Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang, House Party) recounts a case in the life of Thurgood Marshall, one of the leading U.S. Supreme Court Justices in the history of the bench.  We meet Marshall, played by Chadwick Boseman, midway through the beginning of his career as lawyer and civil rights crusader.  After he already sued one law school for discrimination and graduated from another, he began defending individuals that were targeted as criminals based on race, and at the beginning of the film Marshall is struggling to justify to the NAACP, the organization that employs him, that his ongoing fight is worth the resources of the group.  Marshall needs a win for his own reputation and for the NAACP.  Plus, there is a man accused of a crime whose life is at stake.

The biggest surprise in the new courtroom drama is the risk-taking by Hudlin and Boseman in showing Marshall from his introduction not as humble and endearing, but cocky, abrasive, and confident.  Not the quiet Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, or the lazy and arrogant Lt. Daniel Kaffee of A Few Good Men, the film establishes upfront that the young Thurgood Marshall, the future first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, was already a brilliant and savvy attorney and outspoken and fearless even early in his career.  We only learn of the difficult rise he had in his life before the film takes place via stories told by Marshall to local counsel Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad, as the case procedure unfolds and more facts surface.  Echoing his performance as Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42 (reviewed here previously at borg.com), the Marvel Studios Black Panther actor plays Marshall as decisive and determined.  The audience has no doubt he’s going to succeed, but the drama is in how he makes the system work for him and his client, risking Friedman and his firm or anything else that gets in the way, to get a favorable verdict.

Before Marshall won 29 of 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, before he successfully argued the landmark 20th century case Brown v. Board of Education–the famous school desegregation case–Marshall had to learn how to win with the deck always stacked against his clients.  The message is historically important and delivered without the preaching that often accompanies biopics.  But it would have served Marshall’s legacy better had Hudlin, and writers Jacob and Michael Koskoff, selected a case with universal impact.  Like the obvious: Brown v. Board of Education.  The matter-specific case selected instead is a bit unfortunate from a storytelling standpoint because it so closely mirrors the case in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great American novels of all time and also one of the great American films about jurisprudence and race.  Those familiar with Harper Lee’s 1960 novel may feel some deja vu.  But there’s no mimicry here per se, Lee’s novel was derived from an actual case from 1936 and State of Connecticut v. Spell was a real case that is used to attempt to showcase Thurgood Marshall, the man, the lawyer, and the civil rights crusader, in an introductory sense.  But the question remains: Why select a Marshall case that the master lawyer didn’t even get to argue?

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