Hypothetically Marshall is a feel-good ode to allyship, but in practice, it ends up being a disservice to one of the legacies of the most accomplished, important legal minds in American history.
We are living in something of a Black Renaissance right now in terms of the arts, music, and movies. After more than a decade of domination by Tyler Perry and reality TV, the silver screen and the small screen have exploded with shows like Insecure, Queen Sugar, and Atlanta and movies like Moonlight, Selma, and Fruitvale Station. But while the artistic zeitgeist of the Black Lives Matter era has paved the way for more ambitious Black stories, not all these productions hit the mark. The most recent to miss is Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall featuring Chadwick Boseman in the titular role.
Instead of a sweeping exploration of Thurgood Marshall’s unreal career from trial lawyer to Supreme Court Justice, or an in-depth exploration of one of his many harrowing cases — rumbling into the South to save the life of a falsely accused Black person — this film zeros in on a case that Thurgood Marshall could not even argue. In Marshall, Thurgood is banned from litigating in court and can only serve as an advisor to a reluctant, white Jewish insurance lawyer who argues the case instead.
Hypothetically the film is a feel-good ode to allyship, but in practice, it ends up being a disservice to one of the legacies of the most accomplished, important legal minds in American history. Thurgood Marshall was a lion of the court — a looming figure with a huge personality, who for much of his career pulled off impossible cases. He argued Brown versus Board of Education and ushered desegregation. He argued in the South amid the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. He crisscrossed the nation and even argued in front of the Supreme Court.
But yet, in this film he is reduced to a muted advisor and sidekick. And it is baffling why of all the cases he’s managed in his career, a biopic titled after him and invoking his legacy, would choose this particular case. But unfortunately, the role of the Black sidekick and advisor is one with a prominent and long history in Hollywood, and it appears here Thurgood Marshall is shrunk to fit that well-worn position.
It is true this movie is not a documentary, however historical biopics matter. They often shape culture in a way that only popular forms of media can. And choosing to make a story about Thurgood Marshall’s life portraying him as an assistant is not representative of his career, his image, or his legacy.
Moreover, after decades of stories about Black sidekicks and helpers, Marshall doesn’t feel particularly responsible either. In Hollywood, there are more than enough Driving Miss Daisy’s and The Legend of Bagger Vance’s to go around. There’s no need to take the story of real-life heroes and reduce them in reductive narratives.
At best, Marshall is ambling and misleading. It falls far short of its promotional ads where a regal Thurgood Marshall stands tall and imposing, briefcase in hand. It falls short of its single word title, Marshall, which invokes the weight of notable figures known by one name whether Beyonce, Denzel, Luther, or King. And ultimately, it falls short of the legacy of Thurgood himself.
Storytelling centered on white saviors inflates the sense of self and value of white viewers, and it deprives Black viewers who are typically outside of the spectrum of Hollywood’s focus of images in their own likeness. At their best, these films on the Civil Rights Movement show large audiences something that “mainstream” America has never fully acknowledged — something that it does not like to say often.
Well-executed films about this era show vast swathes of moviegoers, that Black voices matter, that Black people matter, and that Black people occupy a central space in American history. That is a bold and radical mission of more imaginative and historically accurate storytelling that reclaims Black people’s rightful space as whole Americans and shows they are deserving of just as much screen time and agency as anybody else. Unfortunately, these are all narrative aesthetics that Marshall fails to capture.
One can make the argument that the entire market for a film like Marshall was dependent upon the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent resurgence in Black film and art that the activism spurred. This reality magnifies the movie’s producers poor choice to tell Thurgood’s story, by draining him of his voice and agency and shows just how out of touch the movie really is.