Marshall is the latest film to star Chadwick Boseman (now best known for playing T’Challa aka. Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) as a real-life African-American icon. Much like he did while playing Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up, Boseman brings Thurgood Marshall to life in a manner befitting the larger-than-life historical figure. Likewise, the film itself eschews the typical Hollywood biopic formula for an approach that, while conventional in some ways, proves more insightful by comparison. Marshall is a solid courtroom melodrama elevated by Boseman’s towering performance and its own timely-as-ever subject matter.
Years before he became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a rabble-rousing lawyer traveling the country for the NAACP. In the year 1940, Marshall found himself headed to the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to defend one Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown): a black chauffeur accused of raping, kidnapping, and attempting to murder his employer’s wife Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a Greenwich socialite.
Upon arriving in Bridgeport, Marshall and the NAACP recruit Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) – a Jewish insurance lawyer who would rather steer clear of Spell’s case – to help get Marshall set up to handle Spell’s defense alone. However, the judge overseeing Spell’s trial then orders that Friedman take the lead for the defense and bars Marshall from speaking or arguing when court is in session. It thus falls to Friedman to follow Marshall’s instructions and present their case to the best of his abilities, with the knowledge that there’s more than the life of a possibly-innocent man on the line here.
Marshall, as written by real-life Connecticut lawyer Michael Koskoff and his son Jacob Koskoff, revolves around a familiar premise: an idealistic young lawyer wages a battle in-court that is emblematic of a greater struggle against systems of oppression and injustice. The “twist” that helps keep things fresh here is that the film’s protagonist isn’t a fictional character, but a historical figure. Marshall also takes the time to develop the young Thurgood Marshall into a charismatic and compelling character onscreen, while presenting context for his significance in 20th Century America. By zeroing in on a lesser-known case from his time as a lawyer, the film works as both an insightful look at Marshall the man and an engaging standalone work of courtroom theater. This further allows Marshall to avoid feeling like a homework assignment that attempts to cover the entire breadth of its subject’s life, as biopics have a tendency to do.
The intriguing case at the heart of Marshall raises questions about both racial and gender-based privilege – questions that the film itself is quite willing to tackle head-on. At the same time, however, Marshall director Reginald Hudlin doesn’t explore these volatile issues with as much depth as might be desirable. Similarly, the film doesn’t spend enough time examining Friedman’s encounters with antisemitism (at a time when the U.S. had not yet entered WWII) to properly juxtapose his story and Marshall’s own experiences with racially-motivated hatred. However, Marshall does avoid presenting Friedman as an archetypical white savior and never loses sight of the fact that the story being told here belongs to Marshall more than his associate. As a result, Marshall makes for a worthwhile addition to the larger pantheon of movies about the African-American experience, even as it falls short of greatness.
“Greatness”, however, is a word that applies to Boseman’s performance in Marshall. In the actor’s hands, Thurgood Marshall is as eloquent and fiery in his speech as he is dashing in his appearance and sophisticated, yet human, in his behavior. Josh Gad isn’t as strong in the role of Mr. Friedman, but does fine work as the more timid and less driven foil to Marshall, making his arc in the film all the more satisfying to watch unfold. The two are surrounded by an equally capable supporting cast of character actors in the film, including; Sterling K. Brown, who is as moving and vulnerable as Joseph Spell – a man with a troubled history that does nothing to help his current predicament – as Dan Stevens is icy and elitist as Lorin Willis, the lead for the prosecution in Spell’s case. Kate Hudson is also good as Eleanor Strubing, a socialite whose fancy exterior cannot hide the damage underneath. Rounding out the main cast is James Cromwell as the judge of Spell’s trial, a man who proves to be more complicated than he might seem at first glance.
Thanks to the cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and production design from Richard Hoover, Marshall is also a good-looking movie from a purely aesthetic perspective. The courtroom-based scenes in the film are handsomely photographed and stand apart nicely from the harshly-lit flashbacks to events that may or may not have happened, on the night that Mrs. Strubing was (allegedly) attacked. Hudlin also maintains a nice sense of pacing throughout the movie with his direction, never lingering too long on any single scene or development. With that in mind: in terms of its technical elements, there’s not much in Marshall that demands that the film be seen on the biggest screen available.
Boseman’s performance, coupled with the movie’s approach to its fascinating subject matter, are what make Marshall a better than average biographical film, more than anything else. As a whole, the movie is on the same level of creative quality as those featuring Boseman playing other famous African-American icons before it. Marshall may not have much more luck gaining traction this awards season than 42 and Get on Up did before it, but it does give its star another feather to add to his cap. Those who either are fans of Boseman and/or interested in learning more about the lesser-known aspects of Thurgood Marshall’s run as a lawyer, are advised to check it out.
Marshall is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 118 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.
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