If you haven’t seen the movie Marshall yet, you need to. Actually, you kind of have to. Since its U.S. release on October 13, the film about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) has already recovered approximately $5.5 million (domestically) of its $12 million budget, but that’s just not good enough — not for a film this exceptional. Let me tell you why.
First of all, let me be blunt — there’s some bad news and there’s some good news. The bad news is that within the first five minutes, I became acutely concerned that Marshall would resemble a “Movie of the Week” on African-American history — like the ones my entire household used to gather in the living room to watch in the 80s. I say this because the opening of the film portended the use of campy dialogue, hyperbolic language and diametrical portrayals of black versus white characters that often typified the “made-for-TV” movies I grew up with. Although these classic films still embody a beloved, timeless foray into “racism 101”, I longed for Marshall to be a mature, modern-day tour de force that would broaden the narrative of America’s racial history.
The news is that my worries immediately dissipated. Marshall quickly becomes more serious in its tone as the plot superbly unfolds. The film’s creators made one decision, in particular, that was instrumental to the film’s effectiveness. Rather than being a general biopic of Marshall’s more famous years as the first black Supreme Court Justice, the filmmakers instead decided to focus on one previously-unrenowned criminal case argued by Marshall as a young attorney in the 1940s. As a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP, Marshall defends a black chauffeur in Connecticut who’s been accused of violating his white female employer.
In essence, is reminiscent of an “origins” superhero story but enacted as a courtroom drama. The story has twists and turns so compelling that it could have been just as riveting featuring a fictional African-American protagonist. Knowing all the while that the impressive, charming lawyer is the future Supreme Court legend is the proverbial icing on the cake. The film reveals the moral and intellectual underpinnings that would eventually transform Marshall into an iconic and formidable historical figure. In one particularly memorable scene depicting the jury selection, Marshall’s astute strategy reminded me how one clever move, in life or a game, can completely change the trajectory of the battle you’re waging.
Yes, the jokes are a bit corny at times, but you can’t help but laugh — they’re funny. And the humor is seamlessly interwoven into the drama of the storyline, which is brought alive by Boseman and an immensely-talented supporting cast including some of Hollywood’s finest (Kate Hudson and James Cromwell, for example). Furthermore, unlike some of the old-school classics referenced above, Marshall features characters reflecting a range of good and evil, such as Marshall’s co-counsel (played by Josh Gad), the judge (Cromwell), the jurors and even the accuser herself (Hudson). Don’t get me wrong, Marshall is clearly portrayed as the consummate hero, but the remaining characters, even the “bad” ones, frequently exude the complexities of human nature. The story also features appearances by famous African-American icons Langston Hughes (played by Empire’s Jussie Smollett) and Zora Neale Hurston (played by Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas), which is an added bonus.