Film Review – Marshall
Thurgood Marshall is one of those treasured rare figures in American history that is both revered and genuinely noble. He was a giant of the Jurice Prudence system known during his career as a lawyer as a defender of the downtrodden. The biggest highlight of his career were successfully winning Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark case that ended segregation in schools. He then went on to be appointed the first African American Supreme Court Justice. Martin Luther King praised his appointment. It’s rare to still have a historical figure that is worthy of unvarnished praise. But if anyone was worthy of it, Thurgood Marshall was.
The most famous portions of his career have been well documented in the past (If you can find it, there is a terrific TV miniseries from the early 1990s called Separate But Equal starring Sidney Poitier as Marshall which depicts the famous desegregation case). But the new film Marshall chooses an interesting legal battle from earlier in his life. Chadwick Boseman, whose life mission may be to play every historical African American figure of note based on his roles over the past few years, plays the titular man. It’s 1941 and he is the only full time lawyer working for the NAACP. So his job consists of jetting to all parts of the country to defend black people who may be unfairly convicted due to the color of their skin. Marshall is well dressed, brash, a bit egotistical, brilliant, and self confidant. Coming into a southern town, he is there to defend Joseph Spell as played by Sterling K. Brown who may very well be one of the best actors working today. Spell is accused of raping a white woman (Kate Hudson).
Meanwhile, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad whose rarely been better) is shoehorned by his law partner into sponsoring Marshall as a local lawyer so he can practice in a state where he isn’t a member of the bar association. That was all Friedman’s role was supposed to be. However, the judge played by James Cromwell doesn’t allow Marshall to practice in his courtroom, only to silently partner with Friedman. So the crux of the film involves Marshall using his impressive legal acumen and being forced to filter it through Friedman in the court room, a lawyer with no criminal court experience. It is a real life legal version of Cyrano de Bergerac with a socially acceptable mouthpiece speaking for the smarter author of the case.
Boseman and Gad as partners are the main draw here. The acting is quite superb. Gad’s character is reluctant since he is going to have to live and practice law in his hometown while being labelled by association in an overtly racist society. But he also happens to genuinely be a good guy with a lot of empathy. Not to mention, the parallels between his Jewish heritage being a target of bigotry and the hostility towards African Americans in the 40s does not go unnoticed. Meanwhile, Marshall has a pregnant wife at home whom he hasn’t been able to attend to because his job with the NAACP is so necessary. The need for excellent legal representation for minorities at the time far outweighed the supply. So this was a man who was improving the world the right way, with his brains and the law.
As directed by Reginald Hudlin, this movie is entertaining and interesting. It falls a little short of greatness due to a bit of obviousness from time to time. For instance, to drive home the point of small town racism, there is a group of white thugs that crop up a couple of times to intimidate and beat on our heroes. Also, the court scenes, while compelling, aren’t anything you haven’t seen before in countless other legal dramas. It’s an interesting chapter in the life of a great man, but not necessarily breaking new ground.
Is Marshall worth seeing? Yes. The performances are uniformly good. Even the supporting roles of Dan Stevens as the slick prosecutor and Kate Hudson as the alleged rape victim are well appointed. Chadwick Boseman is magnetic as the self-possessed young lawyer who is still early in his historic career. And Josh Gad shows an intelligence and maturity here that is a welcome growth for him as an actor. Also, it is an interesting history lesson with the forced pairing of these lawyers providing a unique twist to the proceedings. Much like last year’s Hidden Figures, this film tells an under publicized historical chapter featuring African American’s that relates to a much more well known bit of history.