Chadwick Boseman has made a specialty of playing real-life figures: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and now Thurgood Marshall, the first black man appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Marshall focuses on an important case in his work for the NAACP—one of the building blocks in his ascendant career—and it should come as no surprise that the actor does a first-rate job.
The screenplay, by father-and-son lawyers Jacob and Michael Koskoff, takes us back to 1941. Marshall is sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where an innocent man (Sterling K. Brown) has been accused of raping a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson). In order to mount a defense he must convince a local Jewish lawyer, Sam Friedman (nicely played by Josh Gad), to be his mouthpiece in the courtroom. Friedman is reluctant because the case may leave a permanent stain on his reputation and potentially expose his family to retaliation. He and Marshall eventually forge a partnership, working opposite a well-established attorney (Dan Stevens) and against an unsympathetic judge (James Cromwell).
As a history lesson, Marshall is beyond reproach. Director Reginald Hudlin does his best to avoid obvious choices and follows the Koskoffs’ lead by injecting moments of humor into the picture. The interplay between the ultra-confident Marshall and the nervous Friedman gives this story a welcome, human touch.
The courtroom scenes are strong, as good ones always are. Not knowing how the case turns out—and I didn’t—provides built-in curiosity and suspense. I kept hoping that Marshall would take off and soar, which it never quite does… but it tells its story well. As always, it’s important to remind people of what things were like before the Civil Rights era—to show how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.