Review by C.J. Bunce
The new courtroom drama and biopic Marshall hits theaters across the U.S. beginning today. Director Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang, House Party) recounts a case in the life of Thurgood Marshall, one of the leading U.S. Supreme Court Justices in the history of the bench. We meet Marshall, played by Chadwick Boseman, midway through the beginning of his career as lawyer and civil rights crusader. After he already sued one law school for discrimination and graduated from another, he began defending individuals that were targeted as criminals based on race, and at the beginning of the film Marshall is struggling to justify to the NAACP, the organization that employs him, that his ongoing fight is worth the resources of the group. Marshall needs a win for his own reputation and for the NAACP. Plus, there is a man accused of a crime whose life is at stake.
The biggest surprise in the new courtroom drama is the risk-taking by Hudlin and Boseman in showing Marshall from his introduction not as humble and endearing, but cocky, abrasive, and confident. Not the quiet Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, or the lazy and arrogant Lt. Daniel Kaffee of A Few Good Men, the film establishes upfront that the young Thurgood Marshall, the future first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, was already a brilliant and savvy attorney and outspoken and fearless even early in his career. We only learn of the difficult rise he had in his life before the film takes place via stories told by Marshall to local counsel Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad, as the case procedure unfolds and more facts surface. Echoing his performance as Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42 (reviewed here previously at borg.com), the Marvel Studios Black Panther actor plays Marshall as decisive and determined. The audience has no doubt he’s going to succeed, but the drama is in how he makes the system work for him and his client, risking Friedman and his firm or anything else that gets in the way, to get a favorable verdict.
Before Marshall won 29 of 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, before he successfully argued the landmark 20th century case Brown v. Board of Education–the famous school desegregation case–Marshall had to learn how to win with the deck always stacked against his clients. The message is historically important and delivered without the preaching that often accompanies biopics. But it would have served Marshall’s legacy better had Hudlin, and writers Jacob and Michael Koskoff, selected a case with universal impact. Like the obvious: Brown v. Board of Education. The matter-specific case selected instead is a bit unfortunate from a storytelling standpoint because it so closely mirrors the case in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great American novels of all time and also one of the great American films about jurisprudence and race. Those familiar with Harper Lee’s 1960 novel may feel some deja vu. But there’s no mimicry here per se, Lee’s novel was derived from an actual case from 1936 and State of Connecticut v. Spell was a real case that is used to attempt to showcase Thurgood Marshall, the man, the lawyer, and the civil rights crusader, in an introductory sense. But the question remains: Why select a Marshall case that the master lawyer didn’t even get to argue?
We learn that in 1940 Marshall was the only criminal defense lawyer at the NAACP, and the NAACP allocated resources so he could travel from town to town defending victims of the courts that were targeted for their race. With a half-dozen cases he could pursue, he takes a case in Connecticut defending a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell, played by Sterling K. Brown, who stands accused of raping an uppercrust and unimpeachable society woman named Eleanor Strubing, played by Kate Hudson. But he first needs to have a local lawyer petition to have him admitted to the court solely for the case at hand. That lawyer is Sam Friedman, a civil court insurance defense lawyer who doesn’t want involved. What in any other court at any other time would have been a merely procedural step, their request gets blown apart and neither anticipates the judge, played by James Cromwell, will refuse to allow Marshall to argue in his courtroom. For publicity? Because he, too, is racist and related to defense counsel? Neither Marshall nor Friedman are happy with the judge’s compromise–Marshall can be present in the courtroom but can’t speak–can’t say a word or be held in contempt. This sets up an interesting relationship that doesn’t benefit from chemistry between the two leads so much as confronting the shifting facts and the parallels they both faced growing up in the 1920s and 1930s with Marshall as black and Friedman as Jewish.
As for the acting talent, Boseman continues his success in recreating compelling heroes, and Marshall as played by Boseman will feel familiar to his take on Jackie Robinson. Gad provides that browbeaten and befuddled foil like we’ve seen from Jonah Hill in films like Moneyball. It’s worth noting that Marshall has a reliable narrator issue–showing the viewer what actually happened between Spell and Strubing–but also showing alternate theories of the crime from both the accuser and accused, which is confusing once the truth is learned. Both Brown and Hudson keep the audience guessing, and Cromwell doesn’t show his cards as either fully good, bad, or the neutral his character should be. But the viewer must ask why it saw the incorrect version of the crime play out–why was that necessary? The story is revealed like 1940s community theater, or a courtroom heavy episode of Law & Order: Retro, including an interesting voir dire of the jury and the jury forewoman who takes on a small and unusual role in the story. Rounding out the acting slate is the defense counsel, played by Marvel Legion’s and The Man Who Invented Christmas’s Dan Stevens, whose character’s racism is laid bare in every scene and leaches slowly into the case until he explodes at defense counsel toward the film’s end.
A well-acted film with a compelling and important story from America’s past, but a story that could have done more to feature a more inspirational Thurgood Marshall case, Marshall opens in theaters everywhere in the U.S. today.