Come February, Chadwick Boseman will be front and center in theaters in Black Panther, but right now he’s real-world superhero Thurgood Marshall in this glossy, crowd-pleasing biopic. Marshall depicts the 33-year-old trial lawyer, who would go on to become the first African American justice of the Supreme Court, as he defends another African American, chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of This Is Us), against the rape and attempted murder charges of his employer’s wife in 1940. Amid a climate of pervasive racism, the ugly and potentially lethal accusations were brought by Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a lily-white socialite who attempted to throw Spell under the proverbial bus in a bid to make herself look clean and shiny in society’s eyes.
Boseman has already made quite a mark in biopics playing Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up. Here, he’s all ambition, charisma, ego and obsession as the idealistic chief legal counsel for the NAACP. Directed by Reginald Hudlin, this telling of Marshall’s story is so jaunty, slick, and showboat-y that the whole thing plays like a setup for a franchise or, at least, a spiffy TV series in which Marshall roams the decades helping wrongfully accused black defendants.
But Marshall looks so gussied-up that nobody with a lick of sense could possibly believe that anything or anyone looked or sounded like this in the early 1940s. The sets and locations are bathed in the golden, carefully composed light, signaling that the action isn’t so much set in a volatile time in American history as it is in Movie Nostalgia Land. Too many of the cast members strut and flounce their vintage finery like they’re playing dress-up.
When Marshall and Friedman score a transitory victory over institutional bigotry, it’s hard to resist standing up and cheering.
Considering the movie’s peppy tone, it isn’t surprising that Marshall has a sidekick in Josh Gad, who plays Sam Friedman, Marshall’s genial, much too cuddly co-counsel in the Connecticut trial; in actuality, Friedman was an insurance lawyer who was the only counsel allowed by the judge (played in the film by a vinegary James Cromwell) to speak for the defense while Marshall was confined to silence and private sidebar conversations.
In the once-over-lightly screenplay by criminal- and civil-rights attorney Michael Koskoff and son Jacob Koskoff (screenwriter of 2015’s Macbeth), there is one major standout moment. It’s between Marshall and another African American lawyer, a Connecticut local, and it hits like a sucker punch when the lawyer reveals how he isn’t allowed to practice in his own state because of his race. So much for the so-called “progressive” North, right?
Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the film are the courtroom showdowns, reminiscent of Anatomy of a Murder and To Kill a Mockingbird and packed with highly enjoyable (if familiar) legal theatrics of cross-examination, leading questions, objections and meaningful interactions with jury members. Even under the circumstances, Boseman is too good not to give a righteously impassioned performance, and he doesn’t hold back from playing Marshall as cranked-up, pig-headed and crabby. It’s a nicely rounded and committed turn, but only within a feel-good, superficial gloss on a story that touches the insidious hold that racism held and still holds on our country.
Still, when Marshall and Friedman score a transitory victory over institutional bigotry, it’s hard to resist standing up and cheering. You want them to go on and on, mowing down racist after racist, even if it’s only fantasy. You may also find yourself wanting Marshall (but not Marshall) to keep going, but preferably in a much more incisive, truthful and dangerous movie than this one.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.