Thurgood (Blu-ray Review)

HBO Films’ critically-acclaimed Thurgood was nominated for three Emmy awards including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for star Laurence Fishburne (Oscar nominee, What’s Love Got to Do with It).  Shot before a live audience at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., the film is a one-man show that traces the personal and professional history of civil rights pioneer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  From childhood stories of his family and home life in Baltimore, to his college days at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., Marshall recollects his triumphs over adversity to pursue a successful career in the judicial system fighting for human rights.  Establishing benchmarks in civil rights advancement, Marshall tried the historic case of Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, successfully challenging the unconstitutional segregation of black and white students in public schools.  His achievements eventually led him to become the first African-American to serve as a Supreme Court Justice.


Thurgood originally started out as a play starring James Earl Jones at the Westport Country Playhouse and then later on Broadway in April 2008, with Laurence Fishburne performing the lead role at the Booth Theater.  Fishburne’s stellar performance earned him a Tony nomination for the role.  The play was written by Peabody and Emmy award winner George Stevens, Jr., who made his playwriting debut with Thurgood.  The play was directed and produced by Emmy winner Michael Stevens.  When the play was performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, it was filmed by HBO to be shown on their network and resulted in this Blu-ray.

In my experience, filmed plays don’t generally work as films because they are such different mediums and they always seem to look cheap and remain stubbornly static.  For Thurgood, Stevens and his son, Michael Stevens, who produced and directed, tried not to make the same mistakes as previous productions.  As Stevens said, “We filmed four performances, and we lit it like a movie, not a TV show,” Stevens says of some of the choices his son made as director. “And we used many, many camera angles, so that we were able to give it both visual texture and have variety in points of view. And Michael also enlisted this wonderful composer, Rob Maltes, to create some music that is not intrusive but gives the audience subtle cues about what’s going on.”

Those efforts paid off, since this production looks film-like although it’s obviously been filmed in a theater.  The cameras are always moving and the shots never linger for too long in one spot.  Combined with graphics and sound effects that change throughout the show to support the action or discussion happening at the time, it’s all pretty effective at conveying a mood and transporting the viewers back in time along with the narrative.  It also helps that Thurgood is told in the first-person which works great as a story-telling technique to draw audiences in.

We learn all about Thurgood’s life from the stories he tells and the images that appear behind him.  The play covers his life from childhood all the way through his retirement from the Supreme Court.  His stories are humorous but pointed, with many examples of the racism he faced throughout his life.  His role as an activist against racism began when he was denied entry into the University of Maryland because of his skin color which led to his many fights against biased learning institutions.  Thurgood regales us with tales of his successful legal career with it’s many triumphs and a few losses that he was determined to learn from.  We also learn of his legal leadership within the NAACP, and his historic win in the Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, which ended fifty years of segregation, and his eventual appointment to the Supreme Court itself.

Fishburne is excellent as Thurgood but he also does a great job impersonating other famous figures that pop in and out of Thurgood’s narrative including: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and John W. Davis, the famous Southern attorney who argued in favor of segregation.  This is the warmest performance of Fishburne’s that I’ve seen and it was a pleasant surprise to see him in this kind of a role.  Fishburne disappears into the role and captures the sly wit of Thurgood as well as the pain and outrage from racism that Thurgood always remembered. The script by Stevens is extremely good and it does a nice job balancing humorous stories with actual history which leaves viewer a lot more informed and entertained than they were before it began.  I only have one minor complaint which is the transitions between stories which in some cases switch a little too abruptly.  The use of sound effects is meant to help with the transition but it could have been done a little smoother.  This play (and now movie), provide a fitting tribute to Thurgood and his many accomplishments and the fact that it’s so entertaining just makes it even more fun to watch.


This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer is the best looking play captured for film that I’ve seen.  It was recorded in high definition and combined with the excellent lighting and razor sharp images, this is a very impressive transfer.  Colors are well defined as are textures.  Detail is also excellent and you can see each individual hair in Fishburne’s mustache.  Black levels are also deep and there’s really no blemishes to report.  The picture quality is extremely impressive considering that it was captured live and in a theater.


Another tricky prospect of recording a live play is capturing and balancing the sound.  The actor’s voice must be clear and understandable while the crowd needs to have a presence but not overwhelm the action on the stage.  I’m happy to report that Thurgood’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix performs those tasks admirably.  It’s no surprise that this is a mostly front channel affair since it’s dialogue driven, but the rear channels provide a sense of the audience and atmosphere that makes it feel like you are there.  The sound effects that are used to transition the scenes and stories also sound good and occasionally offer some directionality as well.  Rob Mathes intro and exit music also sounds good and is well balanced with the rest of the show.

Special Features  

Sadly, there are no extras on this disc which seems like a lost opportunity since the play does such a good job in building interest in Thurgood Marshall’s life that you’d think they would offer some extra historical information at least.  I’ve read that this disc was intended to be sent out to schools which makes the lack of extras even more unfortunate.  Extras  could have provided some additional looks into Thurgood’s struggles with racism and segregation and would have provided more learning opportunities.  It’s a real shame.

Final Thoughts  

I requested this movie based on the positive reports that I had heard about the play and I’m glad I did.  This one man show with it’s first person story-telling technique works perfectly for this man and his history.  Fishburne well deserved those Emmy and Tony nominations and he is ably supported by a wonderful script by Stevens.  The icing on the cake is this fantastic presentation on Blu-ray that makes you feel as if you are in the audience.  It’s a shame that the lack of special features brought down my final score.  Despite that, I highly recommend this film!

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