I Will Not Equivocate. I Will Not Excuse.
2017 / USA / 118 min. / Directed by Reginald Hudlin / Opens in wide release on Oct. 13, 2017by:
Thurgood Marshall is the sort of American legal and political titan who practically demands a biopic, but it was probably inevitable that said biopic would turn out to be such a dispiritingly middlebrow affair. The film that director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang, The Ladies Man) delivers has exactly the sort of prosaic narrative one expects of a hagiographic historical drama, complete with a steady flow of snappy lines intended to elicit cheers, jeers, and tongue-clucks. The film is handsome and admittedly rousing in spots, but also dismally familiar, and presented with an annoying slathering of winking hindsight.
The good news is that father and son screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff resisted the urge to pen a sweeping, cradle-to-grave story of Marshall’s life, the preferred tack for countless substandard biopics. Instead, they take a page from Jackie and zero in on a specific historical moment, and a lesser-known one at that. In 1940, the 32-year-old Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) has recently founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and is crisscrossing the nation to assist in the defense of innocent African-Americans indicted primarily because of their race. In Greenwich, Connecticut, meanwhile, an incendiary sexual assault case is unfolding. Black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is about to go on trial for the rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy white woman. The case is exactly the sort of live-wire legal railroading that Marshall specializes in tackling. It’s also the sort that prompts NAACP donors to open their checkbooks, as Marshall’s superior Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith) pointedly reminds the lawyer.
The deck is stacked against Spell in every conceivable way. Marshall’s co-counsel and local connection is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a risk-averse white civil attorney with minimal criminal experience. What’s more, the stone-faced Judge Foster (James Cromwell) denies Marshall—who is not a member of the Connecticut bar—a courtesy waiver. This prevents him from even speaking in court and obliges the easily-flustered Friedman to act as lead counsel during the trial. The credibility gap is yawning: Strubing and her husband are the picture of WASP refinement, while Spell is a dishonorably discharged bigamist with a criminal record. The judge and prosecutor are family friends, the jury is entirely white, and Marshall and Friedman are facing down centuries of racist myths and sexual fears, vis-à-vis black men and white women.
What Marshall serves up is not a wide-ranging fictionalized biography but a relatively narrow courtroom drama, and an absorbing one at that. There aren't many genuine shocks uncovered during the trial; unsurprisingly, both Spell and Strubing are lying, albeit for very different reasons. However, only viewers with deep knowledge of the civil rights movement’s legal history are likely to know the outcome of the real-world case, and Hudlin maintains sufficient dramatic ambiguity that the verdict feels as though it could go either way. Only the high production values distinguish Marshall’s story from those of any number of television legal dramas—call it Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 1940—but it’s a polished and diverting example of the form, regardless.
The film’s villains are smug, cartoonishly vile racists, ensuring that the audience has a suitable target for its boos and hisses, although in the case of prosecutor Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens), the historical reality is apparently not far from the mark. The film's writers can’t resist peppering the script with prophetic lines of dialog that capitalize on 21st-century viewers’ knowledge of Marshall’s trajectory, and that of the civil right movement generally. In this, Marshall unfailingly and distractingly feels like a 2017 film about 1940, and that anachronistic disconnect ultimately crushes any prospect of historical verisimilitude or organically emergent pathos.
Lamentably, the film’s most compelling courtroom sequences tend to pass by far too quickly. One conspicuous example is a jury selection scene, which neatly showcases Marshall’s keen ability to read people, as well as his understanding of the messy nuances of human motivation. Hudlin and the writers offer some hints as to the complexities of WWII-era African-American society—one agreeably prickly scene depicts Marshall verbally sparring over politics with luminaries like Langston Hughes—but such contextual shading is generally given short shrift. The screenplay also unfortunately portrays Marshall and Friedman as relying on some discomfiting victim-blaming defense strategies. The knowledge that Strubing is a racist liar only partly mitigates the rumble of misogyny built into the film’s courtroom fireworks. It's not the slut-shaming that distresses, but the fact that it goes completley unacknowledged.
The alleged colorism involved in Boseman’s casting has been tackled elsewhere, but whatever his physical aptness for the role of a young Thurgood Marshall, the actor’s presence is essential to keeping the film afloat. As in the James Brown biopic Get on Up, Boseman’s charisma is unfailingly the saving grace of Marshall’s more lifeless and stilted scenes. As Marshall, he delivers every line with a righteous electric pop that announces, “I’m smarter than you,” to enemies and allies alike, but always in a way that comes off as smoothly factual rather than snotty. This unfortunately registers as Boseman giving a performance, as opposed to inhabiting a role, but it’s still damn entertaining to watch. Gad is a close contender in the film’s MVP race, rather strikingly rising to the occasion, particularly when he plays off Boseman. The Book of Mormon star delivers what is easily his most appealing dramatic performance to date, ably depicting Friedman’s slow U-turn from faint-hearted whiner to relentless legal pugilist.
This points to Marshall’s fundamental narrative failure: As a story about Thurgood Marshall, the film is rather bafflingly inert. The future Supreme Court justice doesn’t have any character arc to speak of. He leaves the film much as he enters it, with the same focused hunger for racial justice, the same forward-thinking strut, and the same impatience for anyone who lags behind. All the character development in the film belongs to Friedman, and while the nebbishy attorney’s story makes for a gratifying arc—especially in the eyes of white liberal viewers—his name isn’t the title of the damn film. This gives the whole affair the exasperating whiff of a bait-and-switch, as though Hudlin and the screenwriters were fearful of giving their hero any dramatically relevant flaws. Accordingly, they’ve elevated Friedman to the level of de facto co-protagonist, and unintentionally rendered him as a more human and interesting figure than Marshall. It’s a vexing sort of storytelling timidity, and Marshall the man certainly deserves better.