Directed by Michael Stevens and written by George Stevens Jr., Thurgood is a filmed production of a one-man show about the life and times of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall doggedly battled segregation and institutional racism in the first half of the 20th century before earning an appointment as the United States’ first black Supreme Court justice. He’s represented here by Laurence Fishburne, reprising a role he first performed on Broadway. (The film is pieced together from a four-performance run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.) Despite a phenomenally skilled and engaging performance by Fishburne, however, the play and film are hamstrung by a script that is far closer to bland hagiography than a truly interesting biography.
The show is framed around the premise of an aged Marshall returning to his alma mater Howard University, after his retirement in the early ’90s, to speak to young law students. (The clever opening has the famously no-nonsense justice taking a moment to survey his audience before bluntly declaring “Well, we might as well get right down to it.”)
Marshall proceeds to lead the audience through his life story: growing up as the grandson of slaves, fighting his way through law school in the segregated south, working for the NAACP during the Depression of the ’30s and eventually using the power of the courts to strike down America’s oppressive segregation laws, famously winning the Brown v. Board of Education case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which definitively struck down “separate but equal” public education as unconstitutional. In the ’60s, Marshall earned himself an appointment as the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served until 1991 as a leading liberal light.
In the lead role as Marshall, Fishburne gives nothing short of a fantastic performance. Strutting and stalking around the wide stage, he effortlessly alternates in tone and demeanor between the slangy jive of a confident young man, the boisterous holler of a revival preacher, and the sober intonation of a respected jurist, oftentimes moving among all three in the space of a few moments.
It’s a great physical performance as well, which might be surprising to imagine in a show about a Supreme Court justice, but it’s true — Fishburne is almost constantly in motion as he leaps and gesticulates from one end of the set to the other. For the whole 110-minute performance, he manages to hold the audience’s attention like a master storyteller, imbuing Stevens’ script with crackling life even when the script itself is only treading water.
The same goes for Michael Stevens’ direction, which successfully avoids the dual traps faced in filming a theatrical production like this, of either making it too flat and stagey or getting overly clever and cinematic. The camerawork is lively and dynamic without being distracting, making sure never to miss the subtlest physical or verbal tics of Fishburne’s performance, while still avoiding the static, observational feel of many filmed plays.
The set is dominated by 20-foot tall video screen which alternates from scene to scene between an image of a Jasper Johns-style American flag and various historical photographs and backdrops. It’s something that could easily have been distracting or overbearing, but the visuals are, for the most part, done tastefully and never detract from Fishburne’s fiery performance.
Unfortunately, for every bit as intense and engaging as Fishburne is, a show like this stands or falls based on its writing, and Stevens’ script gives his star precious little to work with beyond staid, boring platitudes and superficial insights. Aside from Thurgood, writer-producer George Stevens Jr. has spent much of his career producing the ”Kennedy Center Honors” award specials that air yearly on American television, and their stiffly reverential tone carries over to this show. Although the film was produced and released by HBO, Stevens’ treatment of the material is a lot closer the hushed, soft-focus style of history often found suspended in the amber of a Ken Burns miniseries than the kind of searing exploration of America’s racial issues that you might expect from the network that brought the world Treme and The Wire.
There’s a lot of colorful dialogue for Fishburne to chew on and plenty of stage-ready anecdotes with pithy punch lines but little meat to the biography beyond simply describing the basic chronology of Marshall’s career. We get precious little insight into the inner life of an intriguingly complex thinker and historical figure, and in the end Marshall is used essentially just to narrate a Cliff’s Notes version of the American Civil Rights Movement. For example, Marshall’s chummy lifelong friendship with J. Edgar Hoover isn’t considered to be worth of mention, and his notorious penchant for women and strong drink is alluded to only with a few rascally winks rather than treated as something worth exploring. (The fact that, like Newt Gingrich, he began seeing the woman who would be his second wife while cheating on his deathly-ill first wife is deliberately misrepresented in the show, presumably for the sole purpose of casting Marshall in a more sympathetic light.)
Similarly glossed over is his famously mixed opinion of Martin Luther King Jr., a topic which could be fodder enough for an enthralling show in its own right. How interesting it would have been to see Stevens and Fishburne explore the rivalry between these two giants of the Civil Rights Movement, men who shared the same goals but whose worldviews could not have been more different. Marshall spent his life in the halls of academia and bureaucracy, working his way into the establishment in order to change an unfair system by using its own twisted logic against itself, turning the wheels of justice incrementally. King worked outside the system, impatient with elites like Marshall who told blacks like him to wait for changes that always seemed to be always on the verge of coming but never quite arriving, choosing instead to take to the streets and face down fire hoses and billy clubs.
Privately, Marshall had little respect for King’s methods, considering him a naïve and inexperienced creation of the press who preached pie-in-the-sky utopianism with no real results. (When King’s famous Montgomery Bus Boycott was ended by a federal court decision, Marshall privately belittled King’s role by remarking “all that walking for nothing. They might as well have waited for the court decision.”) How disappointing that the fascinating and little-known relationship between these two men is reduced to just a few throwaway lines that serve, essentially, as comic relief.
The sad truth is that Stevens is unwilling to pull Marshall down off of the museum wall and treat him like the complicated human being that he was, and the result is a character who, for all the vivacity Fishburne breathes into his performance, has little more insight to offer than one of the animatronics from Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. For anyone simply looking to see Fishburne flex his considerable talent before a live audience or seeking a general primer on America’s Civil Rights Movement, Thurgood serves its purpose well enough. But anyone looking for an intelligent, illuminating portrait of one of America’s most important 20th century figures will have to take their case elsewhere.
The DVD from HBO Home Entertainment features no extras.