Judge Clark Douglas once did a one-man show. He only lasted four minutes before he was booed offstage.
In the fight for equality, there was no equal.
Laurence Fishburne is an immensely reliable actor, but it's usually not too difficult to tell when he's really connecting with a role and when he's just accepting a paycheck. In the latter instances (Predators, Mission: Impossible III, 21, CSI), he's a reasonably engaging, authoritative presence who brings a certain measure of gravitas to the proceedings. However, when he's given something of substance (Boyz N the Hood, Akeelah and the Bee, What's Love Got to Do With It) he can be as riveting as any actor working today. Happily, the one-man play Thurgood offers Fishburne on his A-game, as the actor turns in a riveting, diverse portrait of the first African-American Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
It should be noted upfront that Thurgood is not a cinematic presentation of the stage play ala Robert Altman's Secret Honor, but simply a filmed version of a live performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Even so, it benefits from sturdy, intuitive direction courtesy of Michael Stevens (the producer/director of many Christmas in Washington specials), engaging cinematography and a sense of improvisatory playfulness that would have been lost with a more carefully staged presentation. During one early scene in the play, Fishburne's Thurgood regales us with recollections about the many times he was sent to the furnace room as punishment in high school. Later, when two exceptionally late patrons rush in and find their seats midway through the show, Fishburne grins and says, "Let's give these fine people a warm welcome, shall we? They'll be spending some time in the furnace room later."
The show begins in the twilight years of Marshall's life, as Fishburne adopts a raspy voice and a wistful tone to kick things off. However, as he leaps back to his childhood and then walks us through his entire life journey, his voice and demeanor make impressively subtle shifts—he's alternately youthful, upbeat, cynical, weary, grave, playful, angry and nervous at various points, but these tonal shifts are admirably seamless. Fishburne is a terrific storyteller, and there's a certain delight in his eyes when he recognizes that he's hooked the audience on a particular tale.
Thurgood is a show that consistently finds ways to lighten the load of its heavy subject matter, fusing plenty of humorous anecdotes, cheerful wit and enthusiastic energy into the play in a manner that helps prevent the heavy moments from sinking the ship. Fishburne's comic timing impresses throughout, and the actor gives us the sense that Marshall was an amiable kidder by nature. The most intensely engaging portion of the show outlines the famous "Brown v. Board of Education" case Marshall fought in front of the supreme court as an attorney, as Fishburne and writer George Stevens Jr. manage to wring an enormous amount of suspense of this section despite the fact that we all know the eventual outcome.
The show was broadcast during February of 2011 as part of HBO's celebration of Black History Month, and it's debuting on Blu-ray nearly a year later to commemorate the same event. That's appropriate, because above all else, Thurgood proves a valuable teaching tool and an illuminating look at some important chapters of the Civil Rights Movement. I suspect teachers will be turning to this production quite frequently, as it's ultimately a consummate piece of edutainment: consistently entertaining enough to hold the attention of easily-distracting viewers and thoroughly meaty enough to actually teach them something.
Thurgood (Blu-ray) has received a perfectly satisfactory 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. There isn't much to the presentation from a visual perspective: it's just Fishburne on a stage with a handful of props and a backdrop which changes now and then, but the level of detail is impressive. The strong facial detail allows one to appreciate the quiet, unspoken emotions of certain portions of Fishburne's performance and black levels are impressively deep. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly simple (it's mostly just Fishburne speaking and occasional bits of crowd noise—applause, laughter, etc.), but it gets the job done nicely. Music turns up on occasion, but it's used very sparingly. There are no supplements on the disc. Like the show it features, the disc is a spare, effective, no-frills affair.
Thurgood might sound like a well-intentioned chore, but let me re-emphasize: this is a wonderful, engaging, flat-out entertaining production which hooks you quickly and keeps you spellbound throughout. That it also provides a valuable look at a significant figure is a considerable bonus.
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