Few people knew the Supreme Court more intimately than Thurgood Marshall. As a lawyer, he argued 32 cases before the esteemed body, winning a remarkable 29 of them. As a Supreme Court Justice himself, he served for more than 24 years — nominated by President Lyndon Johnson and retiring during the administration of George H.W. Bush. He was a lion of the civil rights movement, one who was already an elder statesman when Martin Luther King Jr. came into his own.
But the new film Marshall, in theaters now, shows us a much younger Thurgood — one who, in 1941, was canvassing the country as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Though he spent most of his time in the deep, racially divided south, this particular case sends him north, to Connecticut. There he helps defend a chauffeur accused of raping his wealthy white employer. One twist, though: The judge, a good friend of the prosecuting attorney, rules that Marshall cannot speak in court. He can work on the chauffeur’s defense, but it’ll be up to Marshall’s inexperienced Connecticut attorney Sam Friedman — a man who’s never argued a criminal case in his life — to present the case and, perhaps, do the impossible: Convince an all-white jury in this wealthy, class-conscious conclave to believe a black man with a problematic past.
The PG-13-rated Marshall, despite some pretty harsh language and some obvious sexual content, embodies why I’m a sucker for courtroom dramas: Nowhere do we see guilt and innocence, wrong and right played out in such a clear, stirring manner. Many of these dramas tell us that our system, as imperfect as it can be, works. And that’s a pretty great message in these cynical times. So with that in mind, here are the inspirational courtroom dramas I think are the best of the best.