Biopics are hard to do well. Even those of us with relatively unexceptional lives would find it laughable to try to condense the whole of our existence into a couple of hours.
It’s just not fair to try to boil a human life down into a series of plot points to create an artificial dramatic arc, and especially when the subject is someone who’s actually worthy of a biopic.
So I was pleasantly surprised that Marshall, the new movie about the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, took a different tack. It’s not a novel approach, but it is a welcome one—instead of showing us a watered-down version of the entirety of Marshall’s remarkable life, we focus on a single case a young Thurgood Marshall worked in the early 1940s when he was a lawyer for the NAACP. And this turns the movie into much more of a tight legal drama than a sprawling biopic, allowing us to experience one small but very consequential part of the man’s life, and telling us a story that naturally has its own dramatic tension.
Marshall, as played by Chadwick Bozeman, is called from Maryland to Connecticut to try the case of a black man being accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white woman. However, Marshall is not licensed to practice law in the state, and the judge won’t grant him an exception, and the only person he can find to help is Jewish insurance attorney Sam Friedman, who’s never tried a criminal case in his life. But Marshall is allowed to sit at the defense table while Friedman tries the case, and so we end up with a sort of trial-attorney-by-proxy, with Marshall feeding questions and objections and all the legal wrangling through Friedman as the trial goes on.
Marshall, the movie, doesn’t exactly break any ground with any of this; it’s definitely nothing we haven’t seen before. But our two heroes play well off each other, and we see what a forceful legal presence Thurgood Marshall really is, despite being relegated to working in the background. And what little glimpse we do get into Marshall’s personal life as he interacts with his wife is powerful and affecting. The movie is a solid, if unspectacular, piece of work, and a relief from the tired tropes of more traditional biopics.