It’s hard to make a good biopic. The greatest challenge is to tell a life story — for those whose lives have had a greater-than-average impact on our world, the likelihood is that their life is too much, too rich with experience, too full of stories to be compressed into a single film. It’s certainly been done, and done well, in some instances — films from Gandhi to Walk The Line have done admirable enough jobs. But too often the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, and in trying to show us everything, leaves us feeling empty.
The solution, as offered in director Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, is to focus on a snapshot, a single event that can serve as a taste of that character’s life and work. Sure, Thurgood Marshall was the first black Supreme Court Justice in United States history, but he was once also a down-in-the-trenches civil rights attorney. Here, the filmmakers drill down and focus on a much smaller case — this isn’t Brown v. Board of Education — and tell the story of Thurgood Marshall’s journey to Bridgeport, CT, of all places. There, he is begrudgingly paired with a local insurance attorney, Sam Friedman (a surprisingly effective Josh Gad) to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black man accused of the rape and attempted murder of his employer’s wife (Kate Hudson).
From a strictly sociopolitical standpoint, it’s a fascinating choice of subject matter. It serves as an important reminder that even in the well-heeled New England cities, racism and racial persecution thrives, even if it may be less overt than in the South back then. It also allows the film to incorporate some elements of privilege and class into its story — a big part of Gad’s arc is his character’s fear that the case will ruin his reputation, without really considering what it will do to the life of Joseph Spell. It also — albeit not always capably — weaves in the longstanding white fear of black men coming for their white women, or worse, white women willingly submitting to black men. It takes a small part of Marshall’s life, and it does quite a bit with it.
The performances are all quite good, even if I sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting as much out of Chadwick Boseman as I should have been. Boseman turns in an intense, though often understated performance as Thurgood Marshall, embittered because he’s silenced by an ornery judge (played with a keen subtlety by James Cromwell) and is forced to have Friedman be his voice inside the courtroom. His constant back-and-forth with Gad’s Friedman are well orchestrated and the two have solid chemistry together. But Marshall was a massively influential, charismatic personality in real life, and I never quite got the feeling that Boseman was truly feeling the character. Sterling K. Brown is terrific as the accused Spell, giving a performance that manages to precariously straddle the line between resigned and angry. If there’s a weak spot, it’s Dan Stevens as the prosecuting attorney, giving a sneer, scoffing, over-baked turn that takes it just a smidge too far, transforming what likely was an arrogant, privileged jerk into a laughable villain parody.
The issue with Marshall is not that it’s bad. It’s a good movie, but it’s scripted in a curious fashion that takes some getting used to — sometimes it feels more like a buddy comedy between Gad and Boseman than a Serious Historical Drama. Other times it’s so intense that it’s almost painful. It throws in a couple of plotlines that don’t get the attention they deserve — Marshall’s relationship with his wife as they struggle to conceive, and Friedman’s precarious position as a Jewish lawyer trying to find his footing in an upper crust, WASPy society. These elements are there, but not really explored enough. There’s a moment when Friedman’s wife is devastated upon learning that her cousin in Europe has been taken by the Nazis, but it’s a 90-second scene, thrown in haphazardly and without the dramatic weight it deserves.
Perhaps that’s the real problem with Marshall. It’s good, but it’s not great, and a movie about Thurgood Marshall — at any point in his life — should be great. That phrase in the previous paragraph — “without the dramatic weight it deserves” — probably applies to the movie as a whole. Sure, there are some tense, dramatic moments, and the performances are mostly strong, but the film is too uneven in tone, too off-kilter. It’s not even that the comedic moments are bad. As I said, Boseman and Gad are quite good together, and Hudlin can do comedy quite well (he directed one of my unappreciated favorite films, The Great White Hype, which uses satire quite effectively). But it awkwardly stumbles between drama to comedy, failing to transition properly or to integrate the two elements as seamlessly as it should. A film about Marshall and Friedman (who became a significant civil rights attorney in his own right) should be better than this on all fronts. This is an enjoyable enough diversion, but not the film its subject matter deserves.