FILM REVIEW – MARSHALL. With Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell. Written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Koskoff. Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language. 118 minutes.
Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, had an impressive career as a lawyer before his appointment, most notably winning Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that desegregated the nation’s schools. In MARSHALL, we’re back a decade or so before that, to the person who was, in effect, the one-man legal department for the NAACP. Barely having time to go home to his wife, he goes from city to city arguing cases where an innocent black man is being prosecuted. His brief is to fight racism, and he does not defend those who are guilty.
Played by Chadwick Boseman, Marshall comes off as brilliant and a bit cocky. His latest case proves to be both a challenge and a lesson. In Bridgeport, Connecticut Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is on trial for rape and attempted murder. His alleged victim is Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the upper-class wife of the man who employs him as a chauffeur. The bigotry and bias in the court are palpable, with the judge (James Cromwell), an old crony of the father of the prosecutor, denying Marshall the ability to try the case as out-of-state counsel. Instead, he can only advise – quietly – Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a civil lawyer who wants nothing to do with the case.
Much of the film is given over to the investigation and trial, as well as the blowback that both Marshall and Friedman receive for taking the case. It nicely picks up on the details of the process, such as the judge allowing an obviously biased juror to be seated, while Marshall surprisingly insists on including a woman recently relocated from North Carolina. The case proceeds with dramatic revelations and reversals, and finally, a dramatic moment where an unexpected character has an “aha!” moment.
Boseman, who has already had memorable turns in movies as Jackie Robinson and James Brown, scores again as Marshall. He shows how hard it was to prevail over a system that was stacked against him, and yet is firm in the belief that the law is a tool that can be used to set things right. He’s also self-aware enough to know when he has to reconsider his options. Gad has also proven to be a capable actor, and watching Friedman rise to the occasion of trying a high profile criminal case is one of the film’s pleasures. Hudson is cool and brittle as the ultimately tragic Strubing, turning in a powerful performance, as does Brown as the hapless defendant whose key scene tells us what we need to know about the times.
It would be easy to dismiss “Marshall” as a conventional courtroom drama although a series of sequels about some of Marshall’s other cases might make for interesting viewing. What makes it much more than that are the performances, and – sadly – the resonance the film’s issues still have today. However, don’t think this is an “eat your vegetables” sort of movie where we’re expected to absorb the film’s lessons and think ourselves good citizens for watching. This is an absorbing drama based in fact, about a true American hero.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.