MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Historical Legal Drama/ Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Jussie Smollett/ Runtime: 118 minutes
I feel it highly appropriate to start this review off by stating that if you were to make a movie about a truly compelling and interesting person in American history, Thurgood Marshall is definitely a name that comes to mind. I mean this is not only the man who argued the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education which would lead to the desegregation of public schools, but is also the man who would eventually find himself being named to the same court thus becoming the first African American to hold the honor. Indeed when you think about it either one of those events would definitely be a story worth telling, and the fact that they both happened to the same man is equally as amazing unto itself. However, Marshall, the biopic which stars Chadwick Boseman as the young lawyer years before he would become a household name, decides to tell a very different story. Thus by doing so it provides an aspect which makes this film, in addition to being highly entertaining, a truly solid drama that gives viewers a glimpse into an alternate universe. This is a universe where African-American actors could be treated as old school movie stars, and star in period pieces that are less concerned with giving audiences a solemn, Oscar-baiting history lesson than an entertaining story that happens to be drawn from real life. However it also, in the process, also manages to give Chadwick Boseman, one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for playing important black Americans, a chance to add yet another icon to his gallery.
The plot is as follows: NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall finds himself dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a black man named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who is being accused of the rape and attempted murder of his employer, a white society woman, named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Immediately upon arrival Marshall finds himself routed by a series of decisions that astonishingly actually happened with the most far-reaching being a decision by the judge (an enjoyably crotchety James Cromwell), an imperious old white man who doesn’t appreciate having a cocky black New Yorker in his court, deliver a decision that turns Marshall into nothing more than a mute bystander at the defendant table by declaring that only attorneys licensed to practice law in Connecticut can argue before his bench. Thus our hero finds himself forced to use his co-counsel, an insurance lawyer who’s never tried a criminal case before, as a puppet as he works out the details of their strategy behind the scenes and then deftly proceeds to guide Friedman during jury selection and opening arguments via handwritten notes, facial reactions, and irritated sighs and grunts as they work tirelessly to prove their client’s innocence…
Now although Boseman is 100% credible as a brilliant attorney, especially when Marshall and Friedman are trying to work around the judge’s restrictions, I feel it is important to note that his performance as Marshall is not an imitation. Nor is it overly concerned with giving us a true psychological portrait of Thurgood Marshall as he actually was. Instead I truly feel that this is more of a classic Hollywood alpha male performance, in the vein of Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, and even Sydney Poitier who could truly excel at playing sarcastic, sexy, domineering jerks. Yet boy were they at the same time so exciting as actors to watch — whether they were orating, smoking a cigarette, or just plain and simply wearing an impeccably tailored suit and walking from point A to point B that couldn’t help, but find yourself enjoying them no matter what their characters did. I feel it’s safe to say that Chadwick Boseman has done an excellent job at truly reviving this kind of character because with his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall we as an audience get a man who has accomplished so much at such a young age, having already argued his first U.S. Supreme Court case, that when he arrives in Bridgeport he offhandedly orders Friedman to help him with his bags, then pokes fun at him and plays head-games with him every chance he gets to the point that he can truly come off as a bit of a bastard at times. To the film’s credit however just when you start to worry that this film is about to settle into the repetitious groove of having a know-it-all hero solve all of a nebbish’s problems, the film does an excellent job of having the full force of the town’s majority white population start to weigh on the duo and in the process latch on paranoia and fear of retributory violence to their work with what follows proving to be a truly humbling experience for both men. Indeed “Marshall” is not a soup-to-nuts biography of one of the most significant figures in U.S. legal history, but is rather a legal potboiler that is dependent on and about teamwork, and while it does pay attention to issues of racial, religious and gender discrimination the film still does a great job of never wavering from its main objective of giving us an entertaining film about a couple of guys trying to achieve success on a case yet who are also slightly in over their heads.
Now one of the movie’s most intriguing qualities is the way that it shows how power and respect vary depending not only on what room you’re in, but who’s in the room with you. Indeed it seems like while Marshall moseys into Bridgeport as if he’s wearing an invisible cape, we feel a vibe that in court, in the city jail, at home with his wife Buster (Keesha Sharp), and in Harlem nightspots with cultural giants, he is truly diminished, either by his own choice or against his will to the point that not only do we perceive him differently, but he perceives himself differently too. The same can also be said for Friedman who also seems like a different person depending on what room he’s in as we see that while Marshall’s swagger and awesome legal track record intimidate him his own younger brother and law partner idolizes and defers to him, and in Bridgeport’s Jewish community he’s a man of influence, respected in large part because he has the nerve to accept challenges that others run from with a marvelous moment in a synagogue men’s room where a member of the congregation seems as if he’s about to insult Friedman for representing an accused rapist only to then slip some cash into Friedman’s jacket pocket for the defense truly showcasing just how much respect this man has with the members of his community. Indeed I feel it is safe to say that by film’s end both Boseman and Gad manage to do a truly superb job of ratcheting their characters’ physical confidence up and down by degrees, depending on the circumstances…a fact that also helps give the movie a richer sense of time and place than you might have expected as it also expertly draws parallels between the experience of Jews and blacks in 1940s America that then do a wonderful job of fleshing out the movie’s final summation.
Now to be fair Hudlin and his writers do pander a bit at times as we see that too many important moments are spelled out in dialogue even though images and performances have already explained what’s at stake and plus not to mention some of the twists are too predictable, and yes in the last third, especially, you may start to suspect that the film is playing fast and loose with the historical record to create a more superficially exciting story because I mean c’mon I knew Thurgood Marshall was the kind of guy who really truly could and did, several times in fact, write a dissenting opinion for the ages, but the fact that he had street-fighting skills on the level of a fairly accomplished bareknuckle brawler was news to me. Also I feel that there are at least 2 characters in this movie that really truly could’ve been played by any actor or actress and they would’ve been just as good. That’s not to say that Dan Stevens, channeling a little bit of Cary Elwes, in his role as the villainous head attorney of the prosecution team and Kate Hudson don’t do good work here because they really do. It’s just that their characters are so 2 dimensional that you can see every wrinkle with these characters coming a mile away and it’s just a shame to waste these 2 fine actors on parts like these.
All in all though despite those setbacks Marshall truly does a fantastic job of giving us a look at a smart, confident hero whose vast knowledge of the law consistently helped him in his seemingly never ending battle to make America a more equal place for everyone, and when you combine a taut story and terrific performances, especially from Boseman and Gad, the end result truly does make for a rousing piece of cinema across the board. On a scale of 1–5 I give Marshall a 3.5 out of 5.