Considering all of his major accomplishments, why hasn’t someone made a film about Thurgood Marshall’s life that was comprehensive? He was the lawyer who won the Brown v. Board of Education the United States Supreme Court case, the founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a United States Solicitor General and the first African American Supreme Court associate justice.
But that’s not what the father/son writing team of Connecticut lawyers Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff had in mind when they wrote this slice of life script.
It’s a tactic that worked for the movie “Selma,” which only focused on one facet of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.
In 1940, 32-year-old Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) heads to tony Greenwich, Conn., to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, NBC’s “This Is Us”) a Black chauffeur who has been accused of raping and trying to murder his rich, White socialite employer (Kate Hudson).
The case is dubbed “The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell,” and the presiding Judge Foster (James Cromwell) refuses to let an out-of-state lawyer defend Spell. His reluctance is more out of hostility towards the upstart Black lawyer than for procedure’s sake. Marshall is forced to partner with a young Jewish insurance lawyer, Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), who has no experience in criminal law. The judge won’t let Marshall speak in court. Friedman is his mouthpiece. The cards are stacked against them.
The good points: Though this is not the bio-film Marshall deserves, this glimpse does offer a view of the ingenuity, perseverance, and courage that propelled the Howard University law student into becoming a crusading attorney, who was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. This case is just one of many that he championed and it serves well as a barometer of the times in regard to how African Americans had to deal with blatant discrimination, racism, and segregation.
Boseman is making a career out of bio-films (“Get on Up” and “42”). His interpretation of the civil rights advocate is shrewd and strong. Gad maintains an innocence and naiveté around his character that gives him room to grow. The biggest surprise is Kate Hudson as the duplicitous socialite, whose understated performance may be one of the best of her career. Andra Day plays a chanteuse and the audience gets to hear her Grammy-nominated voice.
The weak points: Every single interior looks like it was shot on a back lot. None of it looks real. The costumes (Ruth E. Carter) represent the times well, but look far too new and not lived in. The direction (Reginald Hudlin, “House Party”) doesn’t take the story to a higher level. Every plot twist comes at the right time but lacks the embellishments that take good courtroom dramas to another stratosphere.
Director Robert Mulligan found that extra gear with “To Kill a Mockingbird”; Rob Reiner did with “A Few Good Men”; Sidney Lumet accomplished that with both “12 Angry Men” and “The Verdict”; and Jonathan Kaplan succeeded with “The Accused.” What’s on view looks and feels like a made-for-TV movie. That would be a compliment for original programming designed for the smaller screen. Not so much for a theatrically released film that needs a touch more drama, tension and suspense, a higher level of direction and stronger technical elements.
There’s a line in the film that says, “If you want your freedom you’re going to have to fight for it.” Wish someone had fought long and hard to give one of America’s most historic lawyers, courageous civil rights pioneers, and respected Supreme Court justices his due.
Regardless of the trappings, Thurgood Marshall’s spirit prevails and his legacy is being passed on. That makes this film a must-see, even if it doesn’t have the epic grandeur and significance of “Selma.”
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival.