A few facts are fairly well known about Thurgood Marshall. After a long and extremely successful career as a lawyer for the NAACP that began in the 1930s, John Kennedy appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Lyndon Johnson named him U.S. Solicitor General, then made him the first African-American on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served from 1967 to 1991.

“Marshall” takes a look at Thurgood Marshall, the man, but it isn’t a biography. Instead, screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff, along with director Reginald Hudlin, decided to concentrate on one case early in Marshall’s career, one that likely defined him as a force to deal with in the legal community, and set him on the road that would lead him to the top.

It’s the early 1940s, and Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is the NAACP lawyer to call when a black man is in trouble. He’s also the one who the New York-based organization sends all over the country to do that difficult work in an America that, at the time, hardly blinked at the widespread problem of racism.

Connecticut is his destination in this case, one involving a black chauffeur who’s accused of beating and raping the wife of his wealthy employer. Marshall’s boss deems it important that an assistant goes along with him, and he turns out to be Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a busy and respected civil lawyer, proficient in accident and insurance cases, suddenly stuck, against his will, on his first criminal case, and in over his head before he realizes it.

Boseman, in yet another real-life role, after playing Jackie Robinson in “42” and James Brown in “Get on Up,” portrays Marshall as fearless and confident, a take-charge kind of guy who carries his law books in suitcases (like James Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”), who knows his stuff and dresses well. He also understands the power of publicity, and gladly poses, with the initially unsure Friedman, when a newspaper photographer aims a camera at them.

To Gad’s credit, he takes what could have been a small role and makes it bigger than life. It’s a phenomenal performance, showing off the comic actor’s serious side whether he’s just subtly raising an eyebrow or holding forth in court. Which is something he gets plenty of opportunity to do, since the rude, demanding, manipulative, and blatantly racist Judge Foster (James Cromwell), who is presiding, will only allow Marshall to be in the courtroom; he’s ordered not to speak, thereby putting the onus of the case on his inexperienced “partner.” The only positive thing to say about the judge is that, though he’s incredibly impatient, he does abide by the law.

But this is a tough case, full of wrinkles. There are points where controversial questioning from both sides challenges the veracity of the accused, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), as well as the supposed victim, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The same goes for certain expert witnesses. Is everyone lying? Is anyone telling the truth? Suffice it to say, the courtroom scenes get complicated.

As do things going on outside the courtroom. Lawyers for the defense get a lot of grief, and threats of violence, for what they’re doing. Flashbacks reveal what happened or might have happened, and offer clues to the truth. Tensions arise between members of the prosecution and defense, and between Marshall and Friedman, in a couple of scenes that are a bit too melodramatic. But the film remains a nail-biter right to the end, and leaves to door open for interested viewers to check out more about the life of this fascinating man.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Marshall”
Written by Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff; directed by Reginald Hudlin
With Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, Kate Hudson
Rated PG-13