Thurgood Marshall was not always the judicial titan familiar from his years on the Supreme Court—or from Laurence Fishburne’s stellar one-man show “Thurgood” (available on DVD and Blu-ray). Reginald Hudlin’s docu-drama reminds us that once he was a young, ambitious—and as played by Chadwick Boseman, cocky—lawyer taking on cases under the auspices of the NAACP that were difficult, if not impossible, to win—and that took a toll on his marriage. You might call “Marshall” a portrait of the jurist as a young man.
The script by the father-and-son team of Michael and Jacob Koskoff focuses on one of Marshall’s cases, an unusual one in that it was adjudicated not in the South, the ordinary venue of his work, but in the Northeast, a supposedly enlightened region that proved to be no less racist. In December, 1940, an African-American chauffeur named Joseph Spell Sterling K. Brown) was accused by Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the wife of his wealthy white employer, with raping her in their Greenwich, Connecticut mansion. Marshall was enlisted by the NAACP with defending Spell at his 1941 trial in Bridgeport.
Problems arose immediately. In order to gain a place on the defense team, Marshall needed a local sponsor to secure permission for him to practice in Connecticut. The fellow selected was Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), whose work had previously been limited to civil matters. He reluctantly agreed to make the motion believing that after his pro forma appearance he could turn everything over to Marshall, but the stern judge (James Cromwell), whose relationship with the prosecutor (Dan Stevens) was obviously close, would only allow Marshall to sit at the defense table without speaking at all. The ill-equipped Friedman had to become lead counsel and present the case, taking instruction from Marshall at each step.
On the one hand, the film is thus a courtroom piece, with some intriguing twists and turns as the unlikely duo investigate the crime and try to find exculpatory evidence and work to shape the testimony to their advantage, even as Spell’s story changes. (The defendant is a man with a checkered background, and his initial protestations of simple innocence prove doubtful.) That part of the picture is solid enough, with revelations periodically arising to turn the case from what first appears a slam-dunk for conviction into something with a slim chance of turning out differently.
But it is also a vaudeville routine between two unlikely allies, Marshall and Friedman, with the lessons the latter takes from the former having a greater and greater impact until, in the end, the local man becomes a civil rights crusader as well (as we learn in the inevitable credits crawls). Boseman and Gad play it nicely, with the former’s smooth, charismatic bravado juxtaposed well with the latter’s flustered, incongruous anxiety. We’ve seen this sort of odd couple combination before, of course, but this one still works.
Of course, this being a story about a trial with a black defendant in a 1940s setting, there must also be tense moments. Friedman has to contend with pushback from even his wife at first, but his outsider status as a Jew eventually comes to play a part in his commitment to the cause. And inevitably each man will face physical threats from the town’s racist thugs, with Friedman bearing the brunt of the violence. These sequences might seem like throwbacks to films of the sixties and seventies, but one can hardly complain of them in this context.
Compared to Boseman and Gad, the other actors are relegated to the sidelines. Hudson and Brown get a few meaty scenes, while Stevens and Cromwell tamp down the villainous aspects of their characters that might have easily been overplayed. Keesha Sharp is underused as Thurgood’s wife “Buster”—a subplot about the couple’s effort to have a child seems tacked on to add a “personal” element to her husband’s character (an extraneous Harlem sequence with Jussie Smollett as Langston Hughes seems designed for the same purpose)—but Ahna O’Reilly has a few choice moments as a juror Marshall doesn’t strike from the pool as an indication of his caginess, Derrick Baskin and Barett Doss offer an affecting portrait of a Connecticut couple who take Marshall in, and Jeffrey DeMunn scores as a doctor called to testify by the prosecution. The production team—designer Richard Hoover and costumer Ruth E. Carter—manage a good period feel on a relatively modest budget, while cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel gives the images a glossy look and editor Tom McArdle keeps things moving.
For Hudlin, who hasn’t directed a feature in fifteen years (2002’s “Serving Sara” was his last, and he’s worked in television since), this represents a step up, and he does a more than respectable job: even if “Marshall” often feels more like made-for-cable movie than one intended for theatres, it resembles a good made-for-cable movie, and in Boseman and Gad it boasts a strong team.