Cultural MVPs

Call my experience with Thurgood “Education of a White Guy.”

Before I screened a bare-bones Blu-ray edition of the HBO Films production, I knew a few things.  I knew that Thurgood Marshall was the first (and a very long-tenured) black member of the Supreme Court.  I knew that he was someone I really ought to know more about.  And I knew he was being played here by one of my favorite actors, Laurence Fishburne.  That’s about all I could glean from under my rock.

Given that I picked up this review opportunity in a rather eleventh-hour fashion, one thing in particular that I did not know was that Thurgood is essentially a filmed take on a tour-de-force one-man stage show written by George Stevens Jr.  Rather than a standard biopic, we are here presented with the faux reminiscences of an aged Marshall as he “returns” to alma mater Howard University for a lecture to a “friendly audience.”  As Marshall warms up to his topic—his personal involvement in turning the tide against American apartheid—he casts off his cracking voice, shuffling gait, and cane, rejuvenated by Fishburne’s energetic portrayal of a modern man of justifiably mythic proportions. 

Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood MarshallThe bulk of the storytelling concerns Marshall’s formative years as a law student and, later, as an attorney for the NAACP.  As the narrative accelerates through his appointment (and actions) as Chief Justice of the nation’s highest court, it loses some of its focus—but as this section summarizes a great deal of living (and doing) with a minimum of words and maximum of ham, the overall effect of the film does not suffer greatly.

What a monumental achievement for both Stevens and Fishburne!  The writing and conception of the piece are absolutely supberb—in spite of its third-act hyper-efficient deficiencies—and offer one-of-a-kind insight into a seminal chapter in our nation’s moral development.  Marshall’s heritage as an iconoclast and intellectual is unique to say the least, and serves a great illustration that we all may be “born for just such a time as this.”  And the greatest sins we will ever commit are the great rights we saw but failed to do.  If we’re not looking for divine appointments, we may just miss them.

Marshall’s divine appointment, and his moral determination to step up to the challenge, led him to be the first black attorney to argue a case before the Supreme Court—Brown v. the Board of Education—and win; the first black to be appointed the nation’s Solicitor General; and the first black appointed both to the Supreme Court and as Chief Justice.  (Fishburne’s take on Marshall’s conversations with President Johnson during the latter era are among the film’s highlights.)

Because Marshall is a product of the first half of the Twentieth Century, his language may take some getting used to.  The constant use of the now archaic term “colored people”—still anachronistically enshrined in the acronym NAACP—is a bit off-putting, while Marshall’s quickness to take offense at the term “nigger”—from anyone—is rather refreshing.  Marshall’s sniggering here about his tippling and womanizing are also by no means P.C.

Best, though, is Fishburne’s bold choice to abandon “The Voice” in favor of a whole-body portrayal of a completely different character than any Fishburne has played before.  There’s not a hint here of Morpheus or Furious Styles, of Dr. Langston or the Silver Surfer.  No, what we get here is—at the very least—Fishburne immersed in Marshall.

Both Marshall and Fishburne have—in their own ways—established themselves as national treasures.  Do yourself a favor and spend a couple hours with the two of them!

Thurgood is unrated.  Although this an HBO Films production, is not as salty as a good many of them.  Call it PG for language.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional Blu-ray of Thurgood.