Review by guest writer Gino Sassani
Few names ring as powerfully through the halls of legal history as that of Thurgood Marshall. One of the best legal minds of the 20th century, he became the first African-American to be seated on the United States Supreme Court. He participated in landmark decisions both as a lawyer arguing in front of the highest court in the land and as one of its nine justices writing milestone opinions.
But the film Marshall isn’t really about any of that at all. Sure, there’s a postscript that tells us what any reasonably educated person already knew. But the story told here isn’t quite ripped from the pages of an American history textbook. It plays out more as if it were taken directly from the news headlines… in the 1940’s. And this struggle for justice and equal protection under the law doesn’t happen in the Deep South. It happens in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It’s absolutely not what most of us might have expected, but it may just be a better movie because of it.
It’s 1941 and Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is a lawyer for the then-fledgling NAACP. He has skill and instinct and quickly becomes the organizations go-to lawyer. It’s by choice he travels to places where racial equality hasn’t made it to the land’s courtrooms. When Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur, gets accused of the brutal rape and attempted murder of his rich white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), Marshall gets appointed by the organization.
But, it’s not going to be easy from the start because Thurgood Marshall does not belong to the Connecticut Bar. But, that doesn’t stop him from taking on a sponsor who holds a membership. Convincing Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a white lawyer who only tries insurance cases, to work as the spokesman is not only difficult, but unheard of in the state. The next roadblock in trying to win the case is the staunch and strict Judge Foster (James Cromwell) who already knows the prosecutor on a personal basis, State’s Attorney Loren Wills (Dan Stevens). With a tough job facing him and odds against winning very high, Marshall sets out to show his mettle.
Marshall is very much a stylish courtroom drama that effectively makes its point through the course of the trial. The film never tries to beat the audience over the head with the moral point it’s making here. The film gives the viewer credit for being able to piece it all together through the unfolding drama. Marshall never even takes itself too seriously and ends up punctuating the point with a much stronger emotional connection through its style. And the musical score is made up of a quite lighthearted bass jazz music that is often whimsical to keep the story in the early 40’s.
Often the pairing of Marshall and Friedman feels like a buddy-cop movie out of the 1990’s. There’s a particular love/hate kind of banter going on here that accents the deeper connection without really going there at all and Thurgood Marshall isn’t portrayed as a flawless historical icon either. Actor Chadwick Boseman depicts Marshall as arrogant, cocky, and pushy and one seems to think that he probably was at this stage of his life. He often relegates Friedman to a puppet, guiding him to work the court to take the defendant’s side.
Somehow Josh Gad manages to build presence for Friedman, a character who lacks self confidence and suffers under the barbs of the obviously better-trained legal mind. But it’s the nuances of this relationship between he and Marshall that tells the story that isn’t obvious on the surface. The dichotomy makes the pairing both interesting and entertaining, and yet we never really lose sight of the important story that’s playing out here.
It’s almost as if director Reginald Hudlin invites the moviegoers to an entertaining drama while planting subliminal messages the entire time. He did this through a clever script, a perfect cast, and always avoiding the heavy-handed hammer. Oh, the hammer drops. You can hear it in the gasps of the audience at the appropriate moments. They get it. No need to worry about that. But the story is told through characters that are real and flawed human beings themselves.
Marshall often directly channels Harper Lee’s incredible classic To Kill A Mockingbird, even down to the unusual jazz score. The pacing of the courtroom drama gave me a lot of flashbacks to Gregory Peck’s similar fight for justice that was unwanted, for the most part, by the community in which he lived. It’s hard not to draw the same conclusion when one recalls that film was also about a black man wrongly accused of rape. We get many of the same beats. Marshall might have the actual historic character, but that’s not how he’s treated here. And, Marshall doesn’t copy the classic film, but it is certainly a descendant of the work.
Editor’s note: Marshall has been Rated PG-13 y the MPAA for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.