Chadwick Boseman had played three different historical figures in biopics. He was Jackie Robison in 42, Floyd Little in The Express, and James Brown in Get on Up. Boseman is going for biopic number four, this time playing Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American supreme court justice. Boseman has lively and sometime eccentric expressions, which work perfectly for biopics, regardless of whether the person he’s playing was actually like that. And if you thought Boseman went all out with this in Get On Up, think again. Boseman provides an electric performance in Marshall, doing the best he can to make every line he speaks one people will be quoting for years. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and whether or not you think Boseman is a good actor, he can sure make any biopic better.
Marshall tells the story of a single case early on in Thurgood Marshall’s career. Working for the NAACP as a defense attorney, Marshall is given an African-American client accused of raping a wealthy white socialite. Marshall teams up with a Jewish insurance lawyer named Sam Friedman, and together the two fight against a racist judge and prosecutor to try and give their client a fair trial. As they get deeper into the case, however, questions start to arise over who in the courtroom is telling the truth. Marshall must grapple with the idea of justice during a time when every move he makes could drastically impact the early civil rights movements in the United States.
Returning to Boseman, his performance in Marshall behaves very similarly to that of his other biopic characters. In this film, Thurgood Marshall is meant to be portrayed as overly confident and flawlessly knowledgeable. Boseman channels this into an attractive cockiness which affects the entire film in a very positive manner.
Josh Gad plays Sam Friedman, the character who surprisingly has the majority of the dialogue in the film. With the way director Reginald Hudlin and screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff approached the film, Gad’s character carries the majority of the plot, while Boseman’s is always present, but almost serving as an entertaining distraction from the story. Gad is great, delivering the best performance of his career, and does a fantastic job of carrying the film almost entirely on his shoulders. This is especially impressive considering every advertisement for this film puts Boseman front and center and Gad hovering somewhere in the background.
Hudlin and the Koskoff brothers’ decision to essentially swap the roles of the protagonist and the sidekick in this film paid off really well for the first half of the movie. The film gets going and Boseman’s performance quickly ropes us in, making us love everything about him and his character. The problem was that while it was exciting, his character was removed from the main meat of the movie. This was true for the plot, this was true for his role in the film emotionally, and pretty much every other aspect you can think of. This film is a biopic, but the titular character is in no way the protagonist.
I think there were good intentions behind Hudlin and the Koskoff brothers’ decision to keep Marshall somewhat removed from the court case which takes over the whole plot. A few lines of dialogue are thrown into the film where Marshall says something about things being bigger than just the one case. The intention behind this was to show the weight Marshall had on his shoulders and that he was always looking at the much bigger picture in the fight for civil rights. But this message disagreed with the nonchalance with which Boseman portrays the characters, and it disagrees with the main plot of the movie.
It’s hard to understand what story is trying to be told here. We’re expecting a biopic on Thurgood Marshall, but get one on Sam Friedman instead. We’re told a detailed story of a single court case, then expected to have learned everything about the early stages of the civil rights movement. From start to finish, Marshall is a series of mixed messages, resulting in a film that ultimately ends up being boring by the third act because we can’t figure out what we’re supposed to be paying attention to.
The performances in this film are phenomenal, and in a variety of ways. Chadwick Boseman gives an unbelievable but electric performance, while Josh Gad gives a subtle and moving one. I also can’t fail to mention Sterling K. Brown, who brilliantly plays an emotionally and morally conflicted character. But performances alone can’t make a film good. And since the writing and directing of this film fell so far, there wasn’t much that was going to save it from being anything but bad.
I give Marshall a 4.5/10.