Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Marshall (Reginald Hudlin, 2017) ½ out of 4 stars.
Attention, dear reader! Focus. Do you know who Thurgood Marshall was? Born in 1908, the grandson of a slave, he became one of the towering titans of 20th-century American jurisprudence. In 1954, he successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in front of the United States Supreme Court, which effectively ended legal school segregation in this country (though it would take years to implement, and some would argue we have since slowly slid backwards into de facto segregation in many of our communities). In 1967, he became the first African American to be appointed to that same Supreme Court, on which he would remain until he retired in 1991, dying two years later. Living in Baltimore – Marshall’s hometown – as I do, it is with great pleasure that I see, whenever I fly out of my local airport, its full name of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. He was a great man, citizen, lawyer and justice. Surely it is about time he got his own biopic, right?
Unfortunately, it should not be this one. Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin (The Ladies Man) and written by the father-son duo of Michael and Jacob Koskoff (the latter a screenwriter on the 2015 Macbeth), starts out well enough, giving us the young Thurgood Marshall as a lawyer working for the NAACP in the 1940s. Sent from state to state to represent African Americans on trial for crimes they most likely did not commit, he winds up in Connecticut to defend a local chauffeur accused of raping the white wife of his employer. Since he is not officially on the Bar in that state, he needs a local lawyer to present him to the court so he can be accepted as lead counsel on the case. At what should be a purely formal initial proceeding, the racist judge refuses to allow Marshall to speak in court, and so the local lawyer – white, but Jewish (ergo also an outsider) – with no criminal trial experience, must act in Marshall’s stead. Instead of a narrative of how Marshall became the great lawyer that he was, or even just a profile of a seminal case in his biography – I don’t know, maybe Brown v. Board of Education – we get a buddy movie set against the backdrop of a woman who has falsely accused a man of rape. Just what the world needs, at present.
The missteps pile up, the tone descends into middlebrow pablum. Chadwick Boseman (42), as Marshall, is a solid screen presence, as is Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer) as the other lawyer, and the two have, in fact, marvelous chemistry together. None of that helps the script, however, which is a misguided mess. Emerging from the screening, I was livid that a film purporting to tell the story of such an important figure would choose this minor case as its vessel. Furthermore, Hudlin’s heavy-handed aesthetics – particularly on display in the flashbacks to the non-rape rape – underlines every bit of expositional dialogue in thick, cinematic marker. Here’s hoping that someone, somewhere, is finishing up another, better script, entitled, perhaps, “Thurgood.” Let’s pretend this one never got made.