Thurgood Marshall: Second-ever Special Counsel to the NAACP. All-time record holder for most civil rights cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he boasted an impressive record of 29-3. The guy who successfully extended voting rights, ended racially restrictive housing covenants, desegregated law schools and grad schools. Oh, and later public schools in general in a little case called Brown v. Board of Education. A titanic figure in public interest law and impact litigation. The first African-American Supreme Court Justice, a position he used to tirelessly defend individual’s constitutional rights from the bench.
In other words, it’s crazy difficult to pick which of the many accomplishments in his long and storied legal career is his most significant. But it’s easy to pick one that probably isn’t his most significant: Thurgood Marshall has been mentioned by name on the LSAT more than any other historical figure. And really, that means there have just been a couple Reading Comprehension passages about him and a few Logical Reasoning questions that mentioned him.
Nonetheless, we at Blueprint have developed a semi-healthy obsession with him based on his semi-ubiquity on the LSAT. We use Thurgood as an example several times throughout our classroom curriculum. Our instructors sing his hosannas while we teach Reading Comprehension passages about him. We used to proudly feature a Thurgood Marshall action figure on the cover of one of our coursebooks.
So when Marshall — the new film about a case a young Thurgood tried as an attorney for the NAACP — came out, we were first in line to see it. OK, we were not actually first in line. Chance the Rapper — who bought all of the tickets to the film at a few Chicago theaters and invited fans to see it for free — was first in line. He was even more stoked than we were about the film, but that dude is positively gleeful.
Anyway, we were still very excited to get a hit of uncut Thurgood Marshall on celluloid this weekend. And I am eager to share my review: It’s a well-acted and briskly-paced courtroom drama with far too little Thurgood Marshall in it.
From the very first scene, in which Thurgood dons a freshly ironed white button-up shirt like a cape, Thurgood is a dude you want to spend time with. Throughout the film, he’s more or less presented like a legal super hero. Charismatically played by Chadwick Boseman (the guy you call when your film is about an important 20th-century African-American figure, even when the historical figure in question looks nothing like Chadwick Boseman), his young Thurgood is dapper, supremely confident, and sardonic, but with a pithy one-liner for every legal query that comes his way. Basically Tony Stark, Esq. There’s even a running joke involving Walter White, head of the NAACP, firing up the equivalent of a bat signal whenever a new case requires Thurgood.
So Chadwick is a lot of a fun getting some pre-Black Panther reps in as Thurgood the Legal Eagle. And some of the best scenes — whether it’s him at jazz club teasing quasi-rivals Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston (both of whom are also subjects of Reading Comprehension passages) or joking about the apparently-true story about the time he lost one of his, uh, Thurgoods — just involve him holding court, being funny and open and engaging. Or the little comic grace notes that find Thurgood blithely ignoring racially instilled expectations of him, whether it’s directing a white attorney to carry his bags (full of his traveling legal library) or blithely walking into the dining room of a members-only club.
But those scenes are less plentiful than they should be for a movie bearing Thurgood’s surname. Which, by the way, Marshall? Terrible title. I get that going with the much more awesome sounding Thurgood would risk confusion with the 2011 HBO film of the same name, in which Morpheus played the eponymous judge. But Marshall risks confusion with We Are Marshall, U.S. Marshals, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Marshal Law. They may as well gone with Thurgod or ThurGREAT or That’s Some Thurgood Lawyering.
Anyway, the plot: It’s 1941 and Thurgood is the only attorney at the NAACP, which has the legal mission to represent those falsely accused of crimes because of their race. Which brings Thurgood to the case of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of This Is Us and The People vs. OJ Simpson, and the most compelling screen presence here), a black man with a checkered past who has been accused of the rape and attempted murder of Greenwich, Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). You’re expecting that we’re going to get to see Thurgood dunk on some racists in the courtroom and exculpate an innocent man and, if you hold the real-life Thurgood in as high esteem as we do, you’re hyped.
Except, as a result of the wonders of state bars, Thurgood has to team up with a nebbish local attorney named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to represent Spell. And due to deeply ingrained institutional racism, here represented by the judge (James Cromwell, channeling the appearance and demeanor of Gregg Popovich at his grumpiest), Thurgood isn’t permitted to make arguments in the case — only offer advice and support to the decidedly less charismatic Friedman, an insurance attorney who has never tried a criminal case before.
Yes, you read that correctly. In the major motion picture about one of the greatest litigators of all time, we don’t get to see our titular protagonist litigate, really at all. Seems like an unforced error. In fact, Thurgood disappears from the movie for large stretches of run-time. Director Reginald Hudlin and screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff devise a few clever work-arounds to show us how effective Thurgood was in the courtroom, but nearly the entire legal showdown in Marshall pits Friedman against the smarmy blue-blood prosecutor Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens). And the big Oscar bait-y climactic speech of the film goes to Sterling K. Brown, not Boseman.
So the movie’s biggest blunder seems to be the case it chose to serve as its subject matter. At the NAACP, Thurgood argued hundreds of cases on a near-constant basis, as this movie makes clear. The one they chose has Thurgood sitting on the sidelines. The movie could uncharitably be interpreted as not a snapshot of one of the great legal minds of our time, but as a story about a white attorney who learns to be brave and stand up for civil rights. And, while this is obviously not the filmmakers’ fault, now is maybe not the moment when Hollywood should put out a movie in which the plot turns on whether a woman accusing a man of sexual assault is lying. So there’s that, too.
But overall, the movie is an enjoyable legal drama about an early case for two legal figures, Marshall and Friedman, at various stages in their developments as civil rights attorneys. And the movie’s most interesting ideas also stem from the film’s choice of case, such as showing how the bigotry of this era was not limited to the Jim Crow South, whether its the institutional racism confronting Thurgood and Spell or the anti-Semitism facing Friedman. We could have used some more Thurgood in our Marshall, but pretty much every movie gets an expanded universe at this point, so perhaps we’ll get that in Marshall II.