Those of us old enough to remember Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court of the United States remember him as a stern, heavy presence. So what a surprise to meet him again in “Marshall” and to find out that, as a young man, he was a very cool guy — fearless and charismatic, and not just brilliant but up for a good time.
“Marshall” is a historical drama that will introduce many Americans to the life and career of one of the 20th century’s most important lawyers. But if the filmmakers feel any responsibility to that fact, they wear it lightly — and well. “Marshall” is a serious movie, but it’s not preachy or didactic. Rather, it tells its 20th-century story by reviving a surefire 20th-century form, the courtroom drama.
The year is 1941, and Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is a lawyer for the NAACP. In fact, he’s the lawyer for the NAACP, so he travels constantly, providing legal counsel to black Americans wrongly accused of serious crimes. Unlike other criminal defense lawyers, it’s his policy to defend only innocent people. It’s hard, uphill work, and in addition to the rigors of the court, he has to deal with racists and threats of physical violence.
The story of “Marshall” centers around a court case in Connecticut. A rich white woman (Kate Hudson) claims that her black chauffeur raped her twice and tried to kill her by throwing her off a bridge. Meanwhile, the chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) claims that he had no contact with her, that the claims are entirely false.
In the woman’s favor is not only that she’s white and rich, but the obvious question: Why would she lie? And working against the man is not only his race, but that he has a dishonorable discharge from the military and a history of stealing from his previous employer. So Marshall and his partner on this project, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), have all that to deal with, plus a hostile judge (James Cromwell) and an enraged community that just assumes the chauffeur is guilty.
“Marshall” revisits such serious history that it feels almost disrespectful to talk about it as a fun movie, but it is. The court case has many sides to it and is like a puzzle for the audience, as well as the characters, to work out. There are no dull scenes. And as played by Boseman and Gad, Marshall and Friedman are a complementary pair, like something you’d see in a buddy movie — one fit and one fat, one black and one white, one tall and one short, one calm and one stressed, but both Americans working together in a just cause.
Like its title character, “Marshall” remains breezy and engaging, while never losing focus on its higher purpose. The movie reminds us that, though much of American life is ruled, as it should be, by majority opinion, juries must reach their decisions not through gut feeling or uninformed impulse, but by the application of the laws and the evidence. In this way, the courts have been central not only to the preservation of American freedom, but to its expansion.
“Marshall” is yet another case of a movie made in 2015 and early 2016 but that feels tailored to the specific concerns of our particular moment. That’s the uncanny way good movies have of knowing what’s coming before it happens, and of knowing what to say and what people need to hear.