There is great power in films that stray from an obvious approach, much like Marshall seemed to be aiming for when it chose which of Thurgood Marshall’s cases to focus on. Unfortunately, this film strays so far that although his last name makes up the film’s title, it feels only tangentially about him.
When a biopic attempts to tell the story of such an important historical figure, they tend to follow a simple approach to the storytelling. Sometimes you get a cradle to the grave tale that covers all of that person’s life. Other times you get a story that only focuses on the major moments in their life, which is mostly made up of only their adult life. In a recent trend, biopics for prominent people have taken more of a moment-in-time approach where they focus on a narrow scope of time in the person’s life, usually a moment that seems less significant, but is made pivotal with the new insight introduced. In Marshall’s case, it would be the defense of Joseph Spell, who was being accused of rape and attempted murder. When telling the story of Thurgood Marshall, the obvious choice would be to focus on his monumental victory with Brown v. Board of Education. Although it would have been the safest choice, it would have also been the smartest one because the approach that was taken to this film emphasizes the idea of Marshall and not so much the man himself.
Father and son writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff develop this script but have a very specific view in mind. As Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) gets sent by the NAACP to represent Spell (Sterling K. Brown), he encounters Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) who is meant to be his liaison, but quickly becomes Marshall’s reluctant partner. Race is important. It is as important now as it was at the time of this case. People still face discrimination solely based on the color of their skin. Having to face these hardships has given people of color a perspective and insight that other people who don’t experience this injustice on a daily basis may lack. This becomes evident as Marshall continues, and the narrative’s focus shifts from Marshall to Friedman.
Undeniably, this film should have been written by a person of color. As well-intentioned as Michael and Jacob Koskoff Reginald Hudlinmay have been, they ended up proving why a person of color’s perspective is needed in the writing process. Jacob’s previous experience in developing drama (Macbeth) and writing comedy (The Marc Pease Experience) was put to good use in the film, as was his father Michael’s decades of legal experience when it was used to creating the engaging courtroom experience. As a legal drama with comedic flourishes, this film excels by captivating the audience with the legal proceedings and humanizing the characters with the use of humor. If this were just a general, fictional film without any historical heft, it would have been fine, but like the title would suggest, it is supposed to be a film about Thurgood Marshall, and as that it fails.
This Marshall adjacent story still treats Thurgood Marshall respectfully but shifts the focus from him as a person to the idea he represents and the positive influence he has over everyone he encounters. In this case, the person influenced was Sam Friedman, and the narrative focuses on his transformation from alienated to ally. Allies are a necessity to any fight for freedom and equality, so this story is still important and highlights how one oppressed group became great allies to another group. With that being the case, the film should have just been called Friedman and it would have been a good film all its own. Instead, the film feels like a way to show just what great allies Friedman and family were to Marshall, and how Sam deserves equal recognition. This follows a misconception about the true meaning of being an ally. An ally isn’t someone that stands side by side with you, but someone who is going to be behind you, always having your back and ready to support you in your struggle. Being an ally is a thankless job, and it should be especially if you’re truly doing it for the right reasons. The writer’s approach is one that is ally-minded and well-intentioned but the heavy focus on Sam Friedman and Josh Gad’s naturally infectious screen presence makes the person who should be the film’s focus feel like they are much less than.
Along with the film’s split focus came a tone that quickly shifted from serious to slapstick whenever the film was beginning to tread into dark territory. The humor’s obvious use was to create moments of levity so that the film stayed palatable to wide audiences. This gave the audience a glimpse of the real racism of the time, while never lingering long enough on those feelings so that they would have to feel it. Director Reginald Hudlin’s forte is comedy, especially in sitcom format, which proves to be a perfect pairing for the type of film this ended up turning into: a humorous historical account of racism and rape.
The strongest part in this film comes with the buddy-lawyer pairing of Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad. Their schtick ends up being the most entertaining part of the film. Boseman showcases Marshall’s more serious demeanor, but not without its playfulness. Gad becomes a scene-stealer every time he is on screen, with his magnetic energy and reluctant, oh-no-not-again reactions. The film is full of strong performance, from Dan Stevens to Kate Hudson, and even James Cromwell. The most powerful performance comes from This is Us’s Sterling K. Brown, who delivers most of the film’s much-needed gravity.
Marshall would have benefited from a much more serious tone and approach, not shying away from the true brutality of the time. It is a hard thing to face, and most audiences would feel uncomfortable with it, but with the resurgence of the KKK and other race-based hate groups, it is a necessary thing that still needs to be faced.