From beginning to end, the dialog of Marshall is a filmviewer’s dream—a plot that might seem ordinary becomes poetry of the likes of Langston Hughes (briefly played by Jussie Smollett), a classmate of Thurgood Marshall. The protagonist is a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), who narrates that he was born in Baltimore (in 1908) and is unable to attend the University of Maryland because of the color of his skin, goes on to graduate from Howard University with a law degree (in 1933), and then fights his first court case against Maryland to desegregate the university and wins in the Maryland Supreme Court in Murray v Pearson. In 1940, he founds the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as its only attorney and wins Chambers v Florida, a U.S. Supreme Court case when four Blacks are unanimously exonerated because they were terrorized into confessing that they murdered a White man. Marshall then travels around the country to fight cases on behalf of those wrongfully charged with crimes because of their race. Filmviewers might expect that such a biopic of the first African American who later served on the Supreme Court (1967-1991), might feature his success in the 1954 case Brown v Board of Education, but alas there would be no suspense in such a film. Instead, Marshall traces that success to an almost forgotten case early in his career.

The film takes place during 1941. After a trial in Oklahoma City, he travels to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to defend a Black servant accused of raping and attempting to kill Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the wife of a business executive in aristocratic Greenwich, Connecticut. After interviewing Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), the defendant, Marshall seeks to represent him in court, only to be told by the judge (James Cromwell) that he cannot do so because he is not a member of the Connecticut Bar, one of several decisions that might subsequently serve as the basis for an appeal. Accordingly, Marshall prevails upon Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to handle the case, even though the latter specializes in civil law and has never before handled a criminal case. Marshall then tutors Friedman, who eventually becomes a major civil rights attorney. The heart of the film is a reconstruction of the trial but also includes out-of-court scenes in which Whites demonstrate their racial animus, including thugs who separately assault Friedman and Marshall, the latter proving that his fists speak almost as well as his tongue. The prosecution makes out the case against the defendant, including some “dirty trick” surprises to confound the defense. Friedman, counseled by Marshall, then shines by upending points made by the prosecution and recites a closing argument dictated to him by Marshall, who leaves town before the case is decided to defend someone else in Mississippi. In Marshall, filmviewers enjoy the standard Hollywood formula for films centered on trials but also gain insight into the genius of Thurgood Marshall.

The Political Film Society has nominated Marshall for best film exposé of 2017 for revealing the circumstances of the case and best film on human rights for the way in which Marshall, directed by Reginald Alan Hudlin, depicts the difficulties faced by African Americans in achieving justice. MH