At the movies as in life, it’s hard to convey righteousness without coming across as strident, precious or self-serious. Marshall, the new biopic about Thurgood Marshall, mostly settles for somnolence, delivering important, timely messages about bigotry and the ongoing fight for equality with all the urgency of a comfy old sweater. A sort of origin story about how Marshall became a significant civil-rights leader who would later be appointed the first African-American judge on the Supreme Court, this courtroom drama finds Chadwick Boseman once again portraying a real person, but there’s not much insight into the man—nor is there much depth to the film’s study of racism’s vile infestation in the American soul.
Set in 1941, Marshall follows as Thurgood (Boseman) travels to lilywhite Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur accused of raping and trying to kill Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the white wife of Joseph’s wealthy employer. The only lawyer in the NAACP, which dispatches him across the country to fight for black defendants, Thurgood isn’t technically allowed to be Joseph’s attorney since he doesn’t have a license to practice law in Connecticut. Enter, reluctantly, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a mild-mannered insurance attorney who has never tried a criminal case but is convinced by Thurgood to be his surrogate in court. Thurgood isn’t allowed to speak during the trial, forcing him to feed notes to the inexperienced and nervous Sam.
Director Reginald Hudlin and father-and-son screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff have based the film on actual events, but Marshall’s conventionality might lead one to assume that it’s all been invented to satisfy undemanding awards-season audiences. From the initial oil-and-water contentiousness between Thurgood and Sam to the eventual (albeit temporary) victory over institutional racism, the movie consistently goes down a little too easy—no obstacle, no violent bigot, can stand in the way of Marshall’s inevitable path to justice.
Previously, Boseman (now probably best known as Marvel’s Black Panther) electrified as James Brown in the nervy 2014 biopic Get On Up, where he channeled the showman’s cocky, paranoid swagger. A year earlier, he’d been far less enrapturing in 42, in which he played Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson, portraying the Brooklyn Dodgers superstar with plenty of dignity but not much dynamism. Boseman operates in a similar vein in Marshall, giving us a Thurgood Marshall who has fire in his belly and an impatience for the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) racism he encounters during Joseph’s trial. But for such a significant civil-rights figure, the Thurgood we meet isn’t particularly compelling or arresting. Rather, he feels like he’s been plugged into a formulaic narrative—one in which he’s just the latest version of the standard hotshot-legal-genius character who always knows the perfect cross-examination question to ask.
Plenty of biopics make the case for their subject’s brilliance. (And the cinematic courtroom drama is often riveting precisely because it’s fun to watch a sharp, virtuous attorney tear apart his opponents.) But Hudlin, a frequent television director helming his first feature in 15 years, fails to bring the character to life. Thurgood is virtuous, but his righteous anger is rarely cathartic or inspiring—there’s a blandness to the script that drowns the character in vague piety. We’re on Thurgood’s side from the start—and Boseman gives us delicious moments in which this cocky lawyer relishes upsetting the white power establishment around him—but Marshall never seems all that curious about who he is or what makes him tick. And that blandness is mirrored by Marshall’s staid docudrama vibe, which doesn’t yield much gravitas or a sense of a great moral reckoning coming down the tracks.
It’s understandable why issue-driven pictures like this will sometimes opt for an easy, feel-good tone. The real world is horribly complicated—filled with toxic problems that seem insurmountable—and so if a two-hour movie can offer a little hope, why be so petty to begrudge viewers that brief respite? But that attitude, as it’s displayed in Marshall, doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the monstrousness of those obstacles.
To be fair, Hudlin gives us a scene of Sam being beaten by racist thugs and includes a mention that Sam, who’s Jewish, is living at a time when the Nazis are beginning to exterminate thousands of Jews—possibly even members of his family back home in Europe. And Marshall makes a few understated points about the fact that, while Jews and blacks in this country have often been at odds, their shared history of being oppressed and demonized connects them in ways that neither group has always acknowledged. But these are merely flashes of ideas, something to ponder briefly as this frictionless film moves along to its next plot point.
That simplistic approach can be decidedly off-putting when it comes to the particulars of the trial. As they begin investigating, Thurgood and Sam discover that neither Joseph nor Eleanor is telling the complete truth about the night when the alleged rape took place. A more nuanced film would have better explored the prickly racial and class elements inherent in this inflammatory case—not to mention the emotional and traumatic repercussions that come in the wake of a rape accusation, especially if it isn’t true. This is volatile subject matter—which, again, is based on actual events—but Hudlin mostly turns it into a straightforward mystery narrative in which our protagonists must dismantle Eleanor’s story and prove that she’s a liar, even though they’re not sure exactly what happened. Hudson makes Eleanor somewhat sympathetic as we come to learn what her motivations are, but that’s only after Marshall has spent considerable energy casting her as the film’s snooty, rich villain who’s capitalizing on her white privilege to frame a black man for a terrible crime. The movie tries to have it both ways—both showing how horrendous it is that Eleanor leveled this charge against him and also why she, in her own way, is a victim of a close-minded, patriarchal society—but Marshall doesn’t have the elegance needed to pull off such a delicate pivot.
When it comes to the supporting cast, you know what to expect based on people’s haircuts or tone of voice. As the lead prosecutor, Dan Stevens seems to be doing an extended homage to Ralph Fiennes’ Quiz Show character, his short, slicked-back hair and impossibly aristocratic, clean-cut features meant to underline the character’s moral rot. James Cromwell is the prejudiced judge, whose white beard and curt manner suggest a grumpy Santa Claus. As for Gad, the excessive cutesiness that often undermines his performances makes an appearance in Marshall. The actor’s presence says a lot about this eminently well-meaning but stolid drama. Failing to be incisive or moving, Marshall is content to be genial and unthreatening—two adjectives that have never been used to describe the long, hard, ongoing fight for equality.
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Writers: Michael Koskoff & Jacob Koskoff
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell
Release Date: October 13, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.