'Thurgood,' premiering Thursday on HBO
REASON TO WATCH: Seems hard to believe that just a half-century ago, America (or at least some of its states) mandated that blacks and whites use separate schools and other public accommodations, while allowing lawless white mobs to lynch blacks with impunity. But America did.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Thurgood Marshall was named America's first black Supreme Court justice in 1967. Leading up to that breakthrough, Marshall (born 1908) grew up under brutal Southern segregation, yearning and learning to "use the law to obtain justice." As a high-powered NAACP attorney, he would successfully argue before the Supreme Court for 1954's historic decision Brown v. Board of Education, declaring "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional and kicking off a tumultuous decade in the civil rights fight.
Laurence Fishburne was born under legalized segregation 50 years ago in Georgia, before moving with his mother to New York where he'd become a teen actor and eventually star of "The Matrix" and "CSI." Just before taking the lead on "CSI," Fishburne starred in 2008's one-man drama "Thurgood" at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway, clarifying for younger Americans precisely why Barack Obama being elected president was such A Big Deal.
Now Fishburne spreads Marshall's eyewitness-to-history tale in this filming of his stage show, complete with audience reaction. He talks directly to theatergoers as if speaking to students at his Howard University alma mater.
MY SAY: "Thurgood" is significant history. And it was written with obvious zeal by George Stevens Jr. The former director of the Kennedy Center also wrote and directed 1991's "Separate but Equal" miniseries, where Sidney Poitier played Marshall during his Brown v. Board of Education days.
But "Thurgood" feels more "important" than dramatic. Part of it is Stevens' then-I-did-this structure, more focused on biographical bullet points than the flesh-and-blood human behind them. And part of it is Fishburne, who despite coiled power — his Ike Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It" was Oscar-nominated — resonates here as a cool character rather than a fiery one. Maybe that's historically accurate, but it's not very rousing.
BOTTOM LINE: The times are thunderous here. The man isn't.
9 p.m. EST Thursday