"The only way to get through a bigot's door is to break it down." - Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall in "Marshall"
It was an interesting experience to sit and watch Marshall immediately followed by Rob Reiner's upcoming LBJ, both films capturing two different eras in this nation's troubled history with racism and two films that are made even more potent by the resurgent wave of racism over the past few months that has served as a reminder that in many ways we really haven't come that far.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin (Serving Sara, The Ladies Man), Marshall isn't so much a bio-pic as it is a glimpse inside the early career of the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. The film focuses on a case early in Marshall's career as a lawyer for the NAACP, at the time a financially struggling organization for which Marshall travelled the country defending Black men who were deemed to have been arrested solely on the basis of the color of their skin. The case takes Marshall to the conservative town of Bridgeport, Connecticut where a Black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, television's This Is Us) has been arrested for the rape and attempted murder of his wealthy socialite employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, Deepwater Horizon). Upon his arrival in Bridgeport, Marshall is paired up with a young Jewish attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast), who has no experience with criminal law and no interest at all in involving himself in the controversial case.
When the judge (James Cromwell) hearing the case cites a technicality in refusing to allow Marshall to speak in court, a maneuver that forces the already resistant Friedman to become the voice for the defense in a trial that could forever change the course of Spell's life and, for that matter, could significantly impact Friedman's reputation in his small, conservative town.
Boseman has already masterfully portrayed James Brown (Get on Up) and Jackie Robinson (42). He hits another home run as Thurgood Marshall, who'd already presented before the U.S. Supreme Court when he took this case and who is portrayed here as a stylish intellectual with a passion for justice and an almost Sherlock Holmes-like sense of what really happened even when no one is telling him the complete truth. This high profile case would serve as a template for Marshall as he built the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from the ground up and, at least on some level, revived the organization.
Working from a script by Bridgeport attorney Michael Koskoff and his son, screenwriter Jacob Koskoff, Hudlin takes very few changes with Marshall but it's a story in which very few chances need to be taken as the story itself is so compelling and the ensemble cast is at the top of their game including, one must say, a never better Josh Gad who manages to weave together a sort of self-righteous, insecure insurance attorney with an eye for details with a husband and father who cares a lot more than he ever realized about the welfare of his fellow men and women.
Despite being a safe and fairly benign motion picture, Marshall is a provocative and involving film that soars on the strength of Boseman's relentless charisma and riveting convictions. The relationship between Marshall and Friedman is appropriately awkward, an awkwardness that becomes something beyond civil but an awkwardness that never completely dissipates between the brash Black lawyer who will skip town as soon as the trial is over and the now infamous Jewish lawyer who will be left to figure out life in his lilywhite town once the trial is over and the verdict is in. As Strubing, Kate Hudson manages to make us feel something for her despite also known incredibly well that all is not right with her story. Dan Stevens is tasked with the most thankless role as a churlish, bigoted prosecutor with inside knowledge and connections and a willingness to use them.
Marshall isn't a flawless film, yet it's an endlessly involving one that held me for its entire running time of just shy of two hours. For those who wonder "Have we really come that far?," Marshall may very well serve as a needed reminded that despite the madness that is currently everyday life we have, in fact, created a better country for everyone. Marshall is also a reminder that we have a long, long way to go.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic