In 2018, Chadwick Boseman will be suiting up for Black Panther, the latest addition to Marvel’s stable of superhero movies. For now, however, he’s headlining a different kind of superhero origin story, chronicling the early career of legendary civil rights lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
Rather than tackling Marshall’s entire legal career, Reginald Hudlin’s biopic smartly narrows its focus, zeroing in on a single case early in Marshall’s life. Screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff set their tale long before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which made Marshall a household name. In the early 1940s, the 30-something Marshall is a rising star with the NAACP, and the organization sends him to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to handle a particularly high-profile case. A wealthy white socialite named Eleanor Strubling (Kate Hudson) has accused her black chauffeur Joseph Spell (the always excellent Sterling K. Brown) of raping her, before driving to a local bridge and pushing her into the water below.
Since Marshall is not a member of the Connecticut bar, he recruits a local Jewish lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to join him as Spell’s representation. At this point, Marshall has argued in front of the United States Supreme Court. Friedman has heretofore only handled insurance cases, never criminal ones. Together, they form a sort-of legal odd couple: the inexperienced neophyte and the idealistic civil rights pioneer. Things get increasingly complicated when the judge rules that because Marshall is from out of town, he’s not allowed to speak in court — although he can stay on Spell’s defense team. As a result, Marshall — who was known for his eloquent, powerful speeches — has to stay silent and leave all the talking to Friedman.
Boseman has headlined biopics before as James Brown and Jackie Robinson, and here, he imbues the young Marshall with a quiet confidence and a dogged devotion to truth and justice. He’s already a good man, but Boseman portrays him as cocky and self-righteous, too, with only the occasional glimpse of the great man he will become. This Marshall isn’t afraid to throw a punch in a bar, if he believes he’s in the right. And while Marshall’s name may be on the marquee, his courtroom partner gets his fair share of screen time, too, as Friedman grapples with his identity as both a white man and a Jewish man. Together, the two strike up a cautious respect for each other — and even a friendship.
Where Marshall falters is when it starts to drift too much into traditional biopic territory. The friendship between Marshall and Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett), for example, is interesting as a historical fact, but less so when it has little bearing on the actual plot. The film shines, however, as a taut courtroom drama, as Marshall and Friedman try to untangle Spell’s convoluted case — and fight for justice while they’re at it. B