Laurence Fishburne’s performance is more than enough reason to spend a couple of hours with “Thurgood,” HBO’s filmed version of George Stevens Jr.’s one-man show about the trailblazing former Supreme Court Justice and renowned attorney. Timed to Black History Month, the movie is somewhat confined by its dutiful lensing of a stagebound format, but the soaring rhetoric and the trip through America’s tumultuous racial history will make this a project with a long afterlife in educational venues such as high-school social studies classes.
Filmed at the Kennedy Center in Washington (where Stevens and son Michael, who directs, produce the venue’s prestigious annual honors), “Thurgood” features Marshall addressing an audience at Howard U., where he attended law school. The first African-American justice recounts his early life in segregated society, his stern father, his marriage, and his growing determination to “use the law to obtain justice.”
This leads to an extended section about Marshall’s arguing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, followed by his ascent to the U.S.’ highest court, out-of-school tales about Lyndon Johnson, and the judge’s judicial philosophy, which included vehement opposition to the death penalty.
Playing before an appreciative live audience at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, which periodically erupts in laughter or breaks into applause, Fishburne subtly conveys the passage of time through his body movements — entering with a cane that Marshall loses when recounting his youth, then later regains.
Fishburne captures Marshall’s larger-than-life qualities, and in his playwriting debut, Stevens endows his portrait with a ripe sense of humor. Concerned about the court’s conservative bent deepening in his absence, the justice informs his clerks, “If I die, prop me up and keep on votin’.”
By happenstance, “Thurgood” comes a few weeks after “The Sunset Limited,” a filmed version of Cormac McCarthy’s two-person play featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. The two presentations foster a combined impression of HBO shrewdly reaching out to an audience that sees live theater — hardly a crowd associated with TV as a mass medium — while simultaneously creating promotable showcases, featuring world-class actors, for those who don’t.
If the underlying goal is to reinforce a patina of quality surrounding the channel, as Marshall might say, the evidence as presented makes a persuasive case.