HE ARE MARSHALL
Review by Paul Preston
Marshall is another film about a great historical figure that goes the more interesting route than straight-up biopic. Most biopics will cover their subject from birth to death, where films like Lincoln said a lot about our 16th President just by showing the last four months of his life. Last year’s Jackie showed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during the important months following her husband’s assassination and the kinetic and brilliant Steve Jobs offered up everything we needed to know about the Apple founder by showing him at three very separate moments of his life, each time while launching a new technology product.
Marshall isn’t so much the story of Thurgood Marshall as it is a story about Thurgood Marshall. Known for winning the legendary case Brown vs. Board of Education and becoming the first black man to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Marshall instead looks at Bridgeport, CT where Thurgood arrives to help defend a black chauffeur on trial for raping a white upper class woman in racially unstable 1941. Marshall is played by Chadwick Boseman, who also plays Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this plot plays out like a superhero origin story. History has told us the greatness that Marshall achieved in the ‘50s and ‘60s and this film clearly lays out the groundwork Thurgood laid as a lawyer for the NAACP that led him down that path.
After a judge shuts down Marshall’s right to speak in the courtroom (racism much?), the majority of the defense is left to his unlikely partner, Sam Friedman, played winningly by Josh Gad, who has never tried a criminal case. Boseman and Gad make a great team, mostly because they’re playing strengths – Gad getting laughs from self-doubt and sheepishness and Boseman playing confidence with a side of strut. They’re fun to watch.
Sterling K. Brown is one of those actors who’s been working steadily for fifteen years, but has found the spotlight recently with turns as Christopher Darden in American Crime Story and his Emmy-winning turn in This is Us. That’s good news for us ‘cause I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who have yet to discover him. Well, you have that to look forward to and Marshall’s a great place to start. His turn as Joseph Spell, the defendant in case, is an emotional and complicated one. It’s also vividly clear that Boseman is a flat-out star, taking full ownership of hit scenes with charisma and power. Re-creation of time/place is good with Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography capturing Richard Hoover’s production design in mostly Buffalo locations.
As directed by Reginald Hudlin, the film does undercut the dagger it could plunge into the heart of racism, however. The humorous moments aren’t left to just be, but backed up by light music to let us know we’re having fun. Unnecessary. There’s just something in Hudlin’s overall execution that keeps this material, which has the pedigree for awards greatness, from reaching that mark. What is solidly achieved, however, is a crowd-pleasing courtroom drama. Hudlin succeeds in bringing the charm to a script by Michael and Jacob Koskoff based on a real case. Like Blade Runner 2049 before it, the less you know, the better as plot points and twists unfold like an attention-holding courtroom movie should.
Directed by: Reginald Hudlin
Release Date: October 13, 2017
Run Time: 118 Minutes
Distributor: Open Road Films