Some biopics go for sweeping and exhaustive, trying to cram an entire life into a tidy two hours or so. “Marshall” smartly opts for modest. With economy, a bit of gauzy nostalgia and likable performances, it revisits an early episode from the life of Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer who became the first African-American to hold a seat on the Supreme Court. From the 1940s to the early ’60s, he argued 32 cases before the court, winning most. “Sometimes history takes things into its own hands,” Marshall once said, but he also regularly gave history a shove.
“Marshall” isn’t about the famous cases that he argued in front of the court, including the history-making Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which led the court to declare racially segregated public schools unconstitutional. Instead, the movie focuses on a 1941 case involving Eleanor Strubing, a wealthy white woman from Greenwich, Conn., who accused her black chauffeur and butler, Joseph Spell, of raping her and then pushing her off a bridge. After hours of questioning, Spell confessed. The racist reactions to the charges, which invoked the dangerous Jim Crow stereotype of the ravaging black man, caught the notice of N.A.A.C.P., which sent Marshall to the rescue.
Jauntily self-possessed, the movie’s Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) rides in like a cavalry of one, taking the measure of the town and its escalating tension. He’s soon joined by another lawyer, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a button-down type who reluctantly joins the defense and reasonably fears the attention it will bring. The pair’s introduction immediately sets the alpha and beta tag-team dynamic: Thurgood casually asks for a hand with his bags, and Sam ends up carrying the load. The scene telegraphs the shifting power dynamics Thurgood represents, but it also announces that the movie will resort to easy, ingratiating comedy to sell the goods.
Seamlessly directed by Reginald Hudlin from a script by the father-and-son team of Michael and Jacob Koskoff, the movie primarily involves Thurgood’s strategy to free Joseph. Part of what made the case important to the N.A.A.C.P., as the scholar Daniel J. Sharfstein has written, was that it took place in the North instead of the South, where the organization was fighting on multiple fronts. In the 1930s, the activist W.E.B. Du Bois argued that the idea that there was no prejudice in the North was a fable. “The difference between North and South in the matter of segregation,” he wrote in 1934, “is largely a difference of degree.”
“Marshall” takes up that refrain both in its restaging of the trial and through the evolution of Thurgood and Sam’s slow-warming relationship. As the case comes into focus, Joseph (Sterling K. Brown) and Eleanor (Kate Hudson) take their opposing seats, the jury troops in, and the nasty judge (James Cromwell) starts snarling. Thurgood rapidly takes the lead while slyly poking and strategically prodding Sam to rise to the occasion. Thurgood and Sam banter, lash out, jostle for position and occasionally deliver some stink eye, especially Sam (at Thurgood). Like his character, Mr. Boseman is the star of this show, while Mr. Gad is the second banana and often comic relief. Both performers are natural showmen who never step on each other’s moment; they’re fun to watch.
It’s all a bit too much fun at times. The chuckles and legal-eagle bromance make the difficult, disturbing story flow easily, but there are moments when you wish that Mr. Hudlin would ease up on the comedy. Sam, in particular, occasionally comes uncomfortably close to a being a caricature, one of those bespectacled, emasculated types who need a kick in the pants, a sock in the jaw, so they can man up. The broadness of the characterizations is of a piece with the movie’s anxious rhythms and relentless forward drive. These may be a function of the clock running out on Joseph, along with a desire to entertain. But there’s little reflective or quiet time with the characters, these men of righteous action who chase clues before swooping into court and history.