Film Review: Marshall

by Carrie Kahn on October 13, 2017

A portrait of the justice as a young attorney      

NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman, l.) makes a point to the jury while defending his client.

You would be forgiven for assuming that a film that takes as its title the last name of its protagonist would be an all inclusive, sweeping biopic about that individual. But director Reginald Hudlin and the father/son writing team of Michael and Jacob Koskoff have something else in mind with their new picture Marshall. Though named for its central character, the film doesn’t chronicle the entire life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice; instead, it focuses on a single case that Marshall tried early in his career. As such, the film plays more like an episode of the Law & Order: True Crime series, and less like a dramatic biography. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of should you choose to see this well-crafted picture.

Chadwick Boseman, who has already starred as Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (Get on Up), here adds another real life figure to his impressive character roster by portraying Marshall as a young man. The movie takes place in 1941, when the 32-year-old Marshall was the head lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, whose mission was to defend those wrongly accused because of their race. The public interest law firm sought out cases that would help further the cause of civil rights, and not just help one individual.

So when the non-profit hears about a case in tony Bridgeport, Connecticut in which Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur, is accused of raping his employer, a white woman named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the Legal Defense Fund sends Marshall to represent Spell, an uneducated veteran with a somewhat checkered past. Several wealthy families in the Bridgeport area were already firing their black domestic staff out of fear generated by the case; the Defense Fund thus viewed The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell as a chance not just to defend another wrongly accused black man, but also as a way both to help stem the tide of racist fearmongering awash in the community, and to help preserve the local employment opportunities for African-Americans.

Co-counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad, l.), Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman, center), and their client Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, r.) react to a ruling by Judge Foster.

With a racially charged rape case at its center and a heroic attorney fighting for justice amidst an atmosphere of distrust and prejudice, the film brings to mind another courtroom drama about a similar case: 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The difference here, though, which makes the stakes even higher, is that the Atticus Finch character is African-American, too, just like the client he’s defending.

Even in a northern state like Connecticut, in 1941 a black lawyer like Marshall was met with suspicion and hostility. Hudlin doesn’t shy away from portraying the ugliness of the protests and around-town violent encounters faced by Marshall and his co-counsel, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a less experienced white attorney who reluctantly joins the case when Marshall needs a local attorney on board. The interplay between Marshall and Friedman is one of the highlights of the film; Friedman, who is Jewish, is no stranger to prejudice himself, and the film’s mention of a distant war in Europe and fleeing relatives foreshadows dark times to come for Friedman’s extended family. Boseman and Gad have a terrific rapport, with Boseman’s Marshall always trying to maintain his professional cool in the face of Friedman’s nervous energy and lack of confidence. Watching mutual respect slowly develop between the pair is one of the film’s pleasures.

Ultimately, though, the film is a courtroom drama, and a successful one at that. Hudlin shows us the particulars of the alleged crime in well-placed flashbacks, and also nicely details Marshall and Friedman’s thoughtful and meticulous crime investigation and defense creation. The result is a legal drama that’s as satisfying as any John Grisham-based film, and fans of such pictures will be gratified here. Hudlin keeps the pace moving, and throws in enough curveballs to keep the audience thoroughly engaged; the scene in which the jury is selected is a fascinating look at a brilliant legal mind at work, as we see Marshall quickly sizing up individuals while Friedman struggles to keep up.

Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) takes the stand.

The wonderful character actor James Cromwell plays the judge presiding over the case, and his prickliness belies a begrudging respect for Marshall and Friedman and what they are up against. The prosecuting attorney, played with appropriate sliminess by Dan Stevens, makes for a weaselly villain who we want to see get his comeuppance. And Sterling K. Brown, fresh off his Emmy win for This is Us, conveys Spell’s mix of fear and hope with heartbreaking nuance. Kate Hudson gets less to do, but manages to find the humanity in the troubled Eleanor Strubing, who basically throws her lover under the proverbial bus to save her reputation.

Twenty-seven years after the events of this film, Marshall would become the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice; before then, he went on to argue 32 cases before the Supreme Court and win 29 of them – including the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) case that ended school segregation. While Marshall doesn’t portray any of these more famous events, it allows us to see a remarkable man in the infancy of a long and storied career. Through the lens of this one lesser-known but still captivating case, we get a glimpse of the fierce intelligence, drive, courage, and integrity that would help shape the future of American civil rights. Don’t be surprised if, at film’s end, you feel the urge to stand up and admonish your fellow theater-goers: “Everyone, everyone, stand up. Attorney Marshall’s passing.”

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Marshall opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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