You need look no further than the intersection of Austin’s 12th and Chicon streets – where an inspiring quote from a great man covers the entirety of the northeast corner – to realize that the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall remains every bit as relevant today as it did when LBJ nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1967: moreso, perhaps, given the chaotic and downright dispiriting state of race relations in America at the moment. This biopic of Thurgood is wise in its own way, too, focusing as it does on just one of the young NAACP lawyer’s early cases, instead of following the entirety of the man’s considerable lifetime achievements. (He would, of course, go on to argue the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, effectively ending the “separate but equal” myth of segregated schooling.)
Black Panther star Boseman gives a sly interpretation of Marshall, simultaneously cocky, philandering, and charismatically crazy-smart. It’s 1940 and he’s sent off by the NAACP to Bridgeport, Conn., to defend Joseph Spell (Brown), a black chauffeur accused of raping and attempting to drown his WASPy socialite employer, Eleanor Strubing (Hudson). Once there, the hubristic Marshall finds himself paired with Sam Friedman (Gad), a Jewish local attorney whose legal bread and butter has thus far been limited to insurance and accident cases. This unlikely pairing of two racial and religious outsiders – before America entered the war, anyway – imbues what could have been a cliched courtroom suspenser with some fully realized historical context. Friedman is reviled by much of the local Jewish population as a fool bringing unnecessary attention and trouble down on their heads even as extended family members in Warsaw are disappeared by Hitler’s goons. Boseman and Gad have real chemistry, especially after the stern, white Judge Foster (Cromwell) takes Marshall down a peg by making him silent counsel.
Director Hudlin (House Party) keeps the attention on Marshall, mainly, as the film cuts back and forth between a he said/she said version of the truth in flashbacks. The screenplay by father-son team Jacob and Michael Koskoff, the latter of whom is also an actual trial lawyer in Connecticut, is tight and lean; even the courtroom scenes are punctuated by honestly unexpected revelations.
But is anyone telling the truth in this particular case? And will the all-white jury in the non-racist-in-name-only upscale Bridgeport even care? Therein lies the rub, and a fine origin story for a real-life superhero (complete with macho foibles) worthy of his own Marvel-esque action figure.
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