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.