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Thurgood Mar­shall was the first African-American
Supreme Court justice. Wiki­media Commons

Most people know Thurgood Mar­shall as the first black judge to sit on the United States Supreme Court. Few know the details of the legal slog he had to endure in the years beforehand.

Beginning in 1934, Mar­shall worked as a defense lawyer for the National Asso­ci­ation for the Advancement of Colored People, trav­elling the country and taking on cases to defend black people accused of crimes because of their race. He became a prominent legal activist in the 1940s and ’50s, most famously in his suc­cessful argument to end public school racial seg­re­gation in Brown v. Board of Edu­cation before the Supreme Court.

It is this early Mar­shall that director Reginald Hudlin lionizes in the biopic “Mar­shall,” which came out Oct. 13. Rather than depict the drama of a mon­u­mental civil rights case or the con­tro­versy of his Supreme Court nom­i­nation, Hudlin opts to show his audi­ences an earnest Mar­shall (Chadwick Boseman), charged with defending a young black man (Sterling K. Brown) wrongly accused of raping a wealthy socialite (Kate Hudson). To help win the case, Mar­shall enlists the help of Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), an unwilling but steadfast Jewish attorney.

A racist judge, a snotty pros­e­cutor, and a horde of stock bigots attempt to hamper Mar­shall and Friedman, but to no avail. Marshall’s righteous rhetoric — and the power of The Truth — triumph in the end, no matter which devil he faces. 

Critics have praised Hudlin for turning a courtroom drama into some­thing very like a superhero film. The com­parison is apt. “Mar­shall” does not care about its titular subject; it just wants to make a spec­tacle out of a suited lawyer.

That’s not to say the movie is espe­cially bad. It’s just typical of a par­ticular strain of civil rights biopics that prefer to ide­alize their sub­jects rather than actually study their humanity. This summer it was “All Eyez on Me,” which seemed unable to tackle the com­plex­ities of Tupac Shakur. Last Christmas it was “Barry,” a movie whose pan­dering attempts to make a young Barack Obama seem cool and dis­af­fected just made him boring.

“Mar­shall” makes similar mis­takes. In an early scene, Mar­shall and Friedman pose together on the courtroom steps as they prepare to argue their case. Mar­shall uses the oppor­tunity to deliver a Catonian and adverb-heavy speech about how equal rights for all races will win out in the end. The sen­timent is noble and the words even inspiring, but when the camera is panning in on a prophetic coun­te­nance and tri­umphant cellos are swelling in the back­ground, it falls a bit flat.

This is because Mar­shall has a Thomas More problem. Not Shakespeare’s More, whose sainted good humor allowed him to be a fierce defender of the faith that binds all men to a loving God, but rather Robert Bolt’s More, whose stiff presence in “A Man for All Seasons” inspires no sym­pathy in the audience, only a distant sort of admi­ration.

But Mar­shall is even stiffer than Bolt’s secular saint. In the film’s cli­mactic scene, our hero tells Friedman that he, Mar­shall, needs to train a fleet of lawyers “who are as good as me,” oh, wait, he stops himself — “almost as good as me.” These lawyers, Mar­shall says (the sound­track gets inspiring here), will do whatever he tells them to do, recre­ating the legal bound­aries of the United States according to Marshall’s untar­nished vision of right and equality.

Race-related issues are tough to portray in art, and Hudlin chose the boring path: idol­ization. 

“Mar­shall” really is a superhero movie. It’s shallow, cheaply made, and com­pletely dis­posable. If you’re looking for a slice of righteous racial con­flict with a little more kick, check out the new Wu Tang Clan album, “The Saga Con­tinues.” 

It came out on the same day and does every­thing “Mar­shall” could not. Wu Tang brings the ruckus.