Okay, so before I get into this let’s address the elephant in the film shall we? Ya’ll know damn well Chadwick Boseman looks nothing like Thurgood Marshall! This was my initial thought when watching the trailer for the film, based on the first Black Supreme Court Justice, and sadly the film did nothing to resolve this conflict. But, even though I left still wondering why Boseman (who is also listed as a producer on the film) was playing another Black historical figure for the fiftyeleventh time, the film was not a total throw away.
Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang, House Party), focuses on a young and fatigued Thurgood Marshall who is traveling around taking cases of poor Black people pro-bono on behalf of the NAACP. This case in particular is an all too familiar tale of a Black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) being accused of raping and attempting to murder a white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).
Upon taking the case, we soon find out that we will actually never hear Marshall himself argue a single point in the courtroom…right. Instead, his less than enthusiastic co-counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), is forced to take the lead when the judge bans Marshall from speaking during the trial. In essence, Friedman becomes the talking head for the pair, and Marshall is the brains behind the operation. This is demonstrated literally a few times in the film, most obviously in one of the final scenes, when he recites the closing argument Marshall wrote word for word. So, if you were trying to see Marshall roast some white folks in the courtroom, this may not be the film for you.
Because of this hindrance we get to see how Marshall beat the case without actually outright arguing a point in court– which is cool and quite brilliant – but was frustrating. Frustrating, because he was not allowed to speak, and you get irritated right along with him. Yes, this is set in the past, but that doesn’t make watching it any less stressful. If anything, it brings about feelings of disappointment, anger, and rage at the system, that we are still all too familiar with in 2017. This point is brought home in particular by two cameos in the final scene of the film.
Outside of court, we get a glimpse into Marshall’s personal life. But only a glimpse. Throughout the film we see how his life of constantly being on the road is a stress on his marriage. This comes to head when his wife, Buster (Keesha Sharpe), suffers a miscarriage while Thurgood is away on work, and he storms out of court upon notice in order to call and console over the phone. I almost cried. No matter how extremely distraught and emotionally worn out Marshall was, he never quit. He stayed on the case, because he had to. When everyone in the city is literally praying on your downfall you do not really have a choice. And, that was Marshall’s reality.
Then there is the scene in a Cotton Club-like setting, where he and Buster are having drinks with Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and his partner. This was one of my favorite, and least favorite, scenes in the film. On one hand, we get to see some impeccable, but subtle shade being thrown between three legends. However, when Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas) entered the scene they painfully made it so clear that she was indeed Zora Neale Hurston. I cringed as Boseman literally announced her presence, as if she was a guest on The Price Is Right. But, I could have watched that group go at it all day to be honest. Can we make that movie happen?
While these personal scenes are only sprinkled throughout the film, they did help humanize the characters. That also brings me back to my original gripe with the casting. It was not lost on me how perfect Smollett and Thomas visually matched the icons they were playing. Yet, the main character…what happened there? Chadwick Boseman is a very gifted actor, and was very nice to look at for two hours. But how is the same man that played Jackie Robinson (42), and James Brown (Get On Up), also playing Thurgood Marshall? How that work?
Now, this was no Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone situation in Nina, but it was still distracting nonetheless. I will forever be confused by the casting. But, that aside it was enjoyable. In fact it is quite well done and if nothing else, entertaining. Also, the all-star cast did not disappoint. Hey Sterling!