The first problem with Marshall is that it’s called Marshall, leading an audience to expect a biopic about the heroic civil rights lawyer. But it’s less a profile of Thurgood Marshall than the story of a single case Marshall assisted on in 1940. In fact, it was written by a Connecticut personal injury lawyer, Michael Koskoff, who seems to have been inspired by his adult screenwriter children (Macbeth screenwriter Jacob, who gets co-writing credit on Marshall, and writer/actress Sarah Koskoff) to write a movie about a famous case from his home state in which Marshall acted as assistant counsel. Only somewhere along the line, it feels like someone realized that a case where Thurgood Marshall was a footnote wouldn’t sell nearly as well as a long overdue Thurgood Marshall biopic. So they packaged it as a biopic, but it doesn’t quite fit. Knowing this going in will explain a lot, like “Why is the movie ‘Marshall‘ about a case where Josh Gad does all the talking?”
Having been conceived by a lawyer, Marshall feels designed to present the case that Thurgood Marshall was a great man, without letting too much nuance cloud the issue. Depth, complexity, moral gradations — these are dangerous notions in a story you’re presenting before a fickle jury. Marshall takes the same approach. Better to leave out the challenging stuff and stick with the good and the evil, the black and the white, the Josh and the Gad, lest the audience… I don’t know, think too hard and pull a hammy? All of which makes Marshall a snappy watch for a middle school classroom, but sort of remedial and disappointing for anyone expecting more.
The film, directed by Reginald Hudlin (House Party, The Great White Hype) depicts the defense of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur accused of raping his white employer, Bridgeport, Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). As the movie depicts it, the cocksure Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman, who seems to specialize in playing black icons like Jackie Robinson and James Brown) breezes into town expecting to defend Spell himself, while local attorney (and, unlike Marshall, member of the Connecticut bar) Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) makes the whole thing legit by acting as silent co-counsel. Only the judge (James Cromwell) drops a bombshell on the first day of the trial: Marshall won’t be allowed to speak in the courtroom, only to assist Friedman. The movie presents this as a shocking decision by a racist judge.
In reality (good piece on the real case here), Thurgood Marshall didn’t go to Connecticut expecting to try the case himself and never applied to, and this whole scene seems to have been cooked up as a way to explain to viewers why Marshall won’t be arguing the case in his own movie. The urge to simplify exposition about the rules of practicing law between states is understandable, but the film tries to milk it for drama and it ends up reeking of disingenuousness. The conceit gives the movie a gimmicky feel, like the ’80s sitcom trope where the cool guy tells his dweeb friend how to talk to a lady through an earpiece when he’s on a date with his crush. It doesn’t help that Gad somehow always feels like he’s in a Hitch-type situation. The film simultaneously manages to unfairly paint Friedman as kind of a doofus even as it gives him a disproportionate share of Marshall’s legacy. All of which is to gloss over the more obvious question: If you’re making a movie about the greatest civil rights lawyer of all time, whose name is the title, why choose to focus on a case where he didn’t get to do the courtroom speaking?