“MARSHALL” — 3 stars — Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell; PG-13 (mature thematic content, violence and some strong language); in general release
“Marshall” combines some decent courtroom drama with some compelling historical context to create a film that feels like more than the sum of its parts.
Named for the first African-American justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, “Marshall” isn’t a biopic so much as a snapshot of a key moment in Thurgood Marshall’s evolution. We don’t know much about where he came from, we have a better understanding of where he’s going, but director Reginald Hudlin’s film focuses on an event that gives us some compelling insight on the future justice.
Set in the early 1940s against the omnipresent background of World War II, we meet Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) as he’s building a reputation as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Per the film, the NAACP’s mission is to defend African-Americans who have been unjustly accused of crimes based on their race.
“Marshall” focuses on a trial in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where a wealthy socialite named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) has accused her driver, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of rape and attempted murder. Marshall isn’t licensed to practice in Connecticut, so he enlists a local Jewish insurance litigator named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to play, as he describes it, the Aaron to his Moses.
Friedman has some understandable hesitations with getting on board, and not just because he has no experience in criminal law. While “Marshall” showcases the racial persecutions of its titular character, it also shows Friedman paying the price for his association, which winds up converting him to the cause.
Once the premise is in place, “Marshall” largely becomes a courtroom drama, sketching Marshall through the context of the criminal trial. We follow the proceedings through initial arguments, jury selection and the various sparrings between the defense and Judge Foster (James Cromwell), who values a fair trial but isn’t keen on allowing a brash young NAACP lawyer to take over his courtroom.
In flashbacks, we see the different accounts of what happened on the night in question between Strubing and Spell, and the more the investigation proceeds, the more Marshall and Friedman realize that the he-said, she-said case will find its truth somewhere in-between.
Along the way, “Marshall” executes a deft touch as it explores the conflicts of racism that audiences might expect, but also looks within as Friedman challenges Marshall’s seemingly cold habit of bouncing from case to case in pursuit of the NAACP’s larger goal while potentially forgetting about the people tossed aside in its wake.
Rather than apply a heavy-handed tone, Hudlin’s work is much more skillful and measured, also using lighting and period music to enhance the film with an appealing style.
The twists and turns of the court case are good if not mind-blowing, and the narrow view of Marshall feels like more of a taste of a biopic than a comprehensive treatment, but added together, they make “Marshall” an entertaining tale that showcases a key figure in civil rights history.
“Marshall” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language; running time: 118 minutes.