Poor Chadwick Boseman. First he played Jackie Robinson. Then he portrayed James Brown. Now he’s NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall. This is the third prominent figure of 20th Century African American history he’s gotten the chance to play. And yet in each case, the movie he’s stuck in is a bland, insipid and worst of all whitewashed prestige picture.
Apparently Thurgood Marshall’s crowning achievement worthy of a biopic isn’t a story of how he became a lawyer or the racism he faced in his career. Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall” cluelessly focuses on the one story in which Marshall is forced to be silent and cede his courtroom victory were it not for the one white man who stood up to save the day.
Marshall is brought into a small southern town to defend a black man (Sterling K. Brown) accused of raping a wealthy white woman. But he’s an out of state lawyer without a license to practice in that jurisdiction, so he asks insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to stand with him on the first day, file the necessary paperwork, and that will be the end of it. But in a twist, Judge Foster (James Cromwell) orders that Marshall can remain at the defense’s table, but must remain silent, and Friedman will be the one to try the case.
Why put a muzzle on your main character? Why take the most compelling courtroom drama sequences of your movie and give them to a supporting player? Seeing Marshall huff and puff about racial injustice in exposition scenes outside of the courtroom don’t have the same dramatic heft or scathing commentary they would in the heat of the moment.
And it doesn’t help that in these outside moments, Thurgood Marshall does not look like the legendary super lawyer the movie wants us to believe. One of “Marshall’s” big twists comes when the testimony they thought they had secured from a police officer blows up in their face. But we’re left wondering why he didn’t think to even get the official police report. Or why didn’t he press his own defendant to actually be clear in his story?
If “Marshall” had any style or attitude, these plot holes might matter less. Hudlin’s directing is stuck in classical mode, with a jazzy score undercutting the gravity and an inability to be sordid or subversive even when it’s trying. Boseman sounds as if he’s mid-monologue in every line he speaks, as if he’s straining to find something compelling in this story.
Boseman might finally become a star when he gets to play the title role in Marvel’s superhero movie “Black Panther.” And with his luck with prestige pictures, he’ll be better off as a superhero than playing an actual Black Panther.