The story of Thurgood Marshall is an inspirational American tale. The descendant of slaves, Marshall graduated from Howard University law school, argued before the Supreme Court (winning the landmark Brown v. Board of Education) and was appointed to the US Supreme Court. With all of that history, it’s surprising that the filmmakers of Marshall have chosen to focus on none of that.
Written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff and directed by Reginald Hudlin, the film tells the story of Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) in 1940 when he works for the NAACP. A white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), has accused a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of rape in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is picked to represent the defense by a racist judge, leading Thurgood to act as his silent co-counsel. The case proves complex however and both Sam and Thurgood must grapple with outside repercussions that threaten their commitment.
The most interesting aspect of the film is its reversal of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Much like the classic Harper Lee story, the film frames the same type of story around the same themes and instead gives us an uplifting ending, presenting us with an alternative portrait of justice. As well, there’s a bit of “In the Heat of the Night” to accentuate racial tensions.
The film is fine. It hits all of its beats, the acting is good and the story arcs work. It’s just so strange that a movie about Thurgood Marshall features so little Thurgood Marshall moments. No Brown v. Board of Education, no Supreme Court seat. He’s not even the main character of the story. That is Sam with Thurgood serving as his mentor. These strange choices hinder the film somewhat and while it’s appreciated that Marshall isn’t sentimentalized by Hollywood, recognizing the man for his greatest accomplishments would be a tribute to him.