Thurgood Marshall is perhaps not a name that immediately springs to mind when you think about the civil rights movement in America. Names like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, these are the names that grab the headlines. However, Marshall is definitely one of the unsung heroes, and it’s about time his story got more attention.
Marshall follows the story of Marshall Thurgood, the leading lawyer for the NAACP, in the early 1940s. He fought cases up and down the country for African Americans who were receiving unfair treatment based on their race. The case the film focuses on is that of Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur who is accused of rape by the wife of the man he works for, even though he denies the charges. Local lawyer Sam Friedman is brought in to get Marshall admitted to the local bar, only to end up having to be a key part of Spell’s defence team.
In recent years there seems to have been a dearth of decent courtroom dramas, and while Marshall is chiefly focused on the civil rights battle and the historical context of the case, the actual courtroom scenes are really well handled. James Cromwell excels as the judge who keeps his cards close to his chest, keeping the outcome of the case a mystery until the reveal.
Chadwick Boseman is superb in the titular role of Marshall, as you might expect. His performance in Black Panther recently may have won him plaudits, but for me this was just as assured and mature a showing, despite the vast difference in source material. Kate Hudson also shines as the accuser who clearly has something to hide, veering from distraught to regretful and everywhere in between. However, the most spectacular turn in Marshall belongs to Josh Gad, as Friedman. There is a level of nuance in the way Gad portrays the attorney, reluctant at points, his conscience slowly eating away at him as the case develops. This combines beautifully with his Jewish heritage weighing heavily on him, given the context of the time period, making the inequality he sees in the Spell case even more difficult for him to ignore. Gad is superb, and it’s unfortunate that his role here didn’t receive more attention.
Marshall is a really well thought out, enjoyable drama. The acting performances are spot on, the story is structured in a thoughtful, considered way. If I had to pick a flaw in it, it would be that the focus is almost too narrow by focusing solely on the Spell case. Thurgood Marshall was an incredibly influential, pivotal figure in the civil rights movement in the US, and in telling his story the focus here perhaps undercuts his overall legacy. That said, the story that Marshall does tell is captivating, smart and ultimately shows the impact that Thurgood Marshall had on one of the most historically significant movements of the 20th century.