The Oberlin Review

Supreme Court Justice Biopic Thrills with Legal Twists, Turns

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Editor’s note: This article contains mention of sexual assault, violence, racism, and anti-Semitism.

In a thrilling biographical legal drama, Marshall tells the story of the Supreme Court justice and civil rights lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, as he confronts one of the first and lesser-known cases of his prolific career. When a wealthy socialite accuses her Black chauffeur of sexual assault and attempted murder, Marshall must join forces with local insurance lawyer Sam Friedman to uncover the truth and defend the chauffeur from a town that has already presumed his guilt.

This films stands out from the typical biographical drama, as it avoids the usual attempts to glorify an individual by focusing on their greatest triumphs. Marshall’s more famous cases — such as Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public education — are already taught in most American history classes. The film provides a new perspective by confronting a case from 1940 that few members of the audience are likely familiar with. Viewers hoping to see Marshall’s entire life story crammed into a two-hour window will be disappointed. This tighter focus, however, is exactly what allows this film to be a true drama rather than supplementary material for a history textbook.

By focusing on a lesser known case of Marshall’s, the film also highlights the kind of man that Marshall was and the values he championed. Ultimately, this saves the film from falling into the common trap faced by biopics, where glorification often overpowers the humanity of heroes. Over the course of the film, the audience gradually gets to know Marshall as if he were speaking directly through the screen to them. Although he certainly shines in court, the nuances of his life are revealed far beyond his career: caring for his wife, drinking with friends, and in many respects, simply living an ordinary life. A portrait is ultimately drawn that illustrates Marshall not only to be a just lawyer, as most people already know him to be, but also a regular man, hitting home at a personal level.

Marshall’s partner-in-law, Friedman, is given just as much character complexity throughout the story. Reluctantly thrust into the defense case with Marshall, Friedman is petrified by the negative attention that it will bring to both him and his family in the beginning of the story. As a Jewish person living during the peak of Nazism, he faces great struggles with anti-Semitism, and gradually, as the story progresses, begins discovering parallels between this bigotry and the racism that Marshall — and their client — must confront daily.

The most compelling element of this film is the way it uses these parallels to create a highly relevant message about the prejudice currently and increasingly prevalent throughout the nation. More than just acknowledging that discrimination exists, Marshall reveals how history has changed because of heroes willing to rise to the occasion and advocate for what is right, even when they are threatened, ostracized, and beaten down. Such determination holds equal importance today, and in one of the most powerful quotes of the film, Marshall summarizes this principle: “The only way to get through a bigot’s door is to break it down.”

Although the film is certainly excellent as an overall experience, there are several points that warranted improvement, especially the use of humor. While humor often provides some relief to the dark and often frightening story, the film seems to overuse this, relying on comical moments like a crutch to move the plot through slower parts. This can make the jokes seem forced or mistimed. At the worst moments, the juxtaposition of humor in the middle of otherwise serious scenes is a sour note.

The film is perhaps just a little bit too ambitious. Many of the plot points that were introduced early on are later abandoned and ultimately irrelevant to the storyline and add unnecessary baggage to the story. However, even this does not subtract from the underlying messages, which alone makes the movie worth seeing.

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