Thurgood Marshall was a civil rights icon. As founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, he argued 32 cases before the U. S. Supreme Court and won all but three. The most notable may have been Brown v. Board of Education which threw out the “separate but equal” approach to public education. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him as the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court.
Rather than attempt to tell Marshall’s life story, the film Marshall selects one case in which he was involved In 1941 when he was hopping across the country by train to defend African-Americans. In this case he works with local attorney Sam Friedman to defend a man accused of raping his employer’s wife.
Although this is in some ways a standard court room drama, the film summarizes the challenge of finding justice for African Americans as well as the prejudice against Jews while America was fighting the Nazis and Jews in Europe were being sent to death camps. Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) fights for individual rights on the home front alongside Friedman (Josh Gad), a rather reluctant advocate.
Young Marshall is depicted as brash, brilliant, and driven. In this snapshot that summarizes a long and illustrious career, Boseman embodies what made Marshall such a pivotal figure in the civil rights struggle. He is tenacious, unbending, and a bit self-righteous but these are the qualities that made him successful. Although often playing for the quick laugh, Friedman (Gad) reminds the audience that the fight for equality was (and is) not only for blacks but for every citizen, regardless of race, color, or creed.
In addition to the search for justice, the primary ethical theme here is the nature for truth and what leads us to lie. Both accuser and accused have separate stories driven by their own fears and needs. The courtroom drama peels away the lies and discloses the fears of each while uncovering the truth.
As the leaders of the civil rights movement pass from the scene, films like Marshall remind us of the courage of those who led and those who stood with them. It is also a reminder that the fight for justice continues.