MARSHALL Review

One might think, given Chadwick Boseman has now played three historical characters in three rather high profile biopics, that it is not only something the actor enjoys or is good at, but that these historical figures might begin to meld together in one fashion or another as far as their screen personas are concerned. If nothing else though, Marshall proves that Boseman is as skilled an actor as he is a disguise artist given his representation of the titular character in Marshall is as different and unexpected as his incarnations of Jackie Robinson and James Brown were before. The fact Boseman doesn't really share any physical features with the late Marshall isn't distracting for, as Boseman has done in the past, he seemingly captures a spirit or an essence of that person-even if their personality wasn't widely known-and delivers in his portrayal that real personality. It's authentic and it's something you can't manufacture. Lucky for audiences, Boseman's performance and its definitive nature in clarifying Boseman's transformative abilities is not all the movie has to offer as Marshall is a number of interesting things bound together in a seamless and rather moving package that just so happens to include another phenomenal turn from an actor who has shown time and time again that there is no reason to doubt his talent or his choices. Furthermore, Marshall is as much a movie about Mr.  Thurgood Marshall, American lawyer and eventual Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, as it is about Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), an insurance lawyer from Greenwich, Connecticut who comes to form something of an uncommon bond with the famed lawyer who went from town to town for the NAACP fighting for African Americans who were on trial not for their deeds, but for their race. It is important to note that Friedman was a white Jew (this takes place in 1941, mind you) and is someone who no doubt faced prejudice in his own life to certain extents, but it is this combination of Boseman and Gad and their buddy dynamic, of the biopic and the courtroom drama, and of those whodunit aspects with the structure of a super hero origin story that sets Marshall apart from not just being another serious drama pining for awards by portraying real-life events, but a motion picture that is genuine in its attempt to portray all facets of the life of a man who strove for nothing but admirable change.  

Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) and Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) discuss their case on the steps of the courthouse.
Photo by Barry Wetcher
It would be easy to walk into Marshall with the expectation of it either being a cradle to the grave type account or that of one that thoroughly examines Marshall's historic win in the Brown v. Board of Education case that took place in 1954; thirteen years after the events depicted in the movie we're currently discussing about Marshall's life. Granted, by 1941 at the age thirty-two, Marshall had already sued the University of Maryland and won forcing the school to integrate (he wasn't allowed to attend there because he was black despite it being within walking distance of his house) and had argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court the year before. When we come to meet Marshall he is the single lawyer on the NAACP's pay role and traveling wherever he is needed in order to, if not win, at least leave the impression that those African Americans being persecuted solely for the color of their skin will not go down without a fight-that there are those who will fight, not as the racists and bigots would have you believe all black people fight, but by utilizing the law. Thurgood Marshall existed to inform such individuals he could use the very laws this country was built on to win his battles despite the constitution not being written with his race in mind. Marshall takes this stirring premise and opens the film by juxtaposing Marshall's valiant efforts in the courtroom with that of Friedman's rather empty ones. Speaking of which, the film makes strong use of cross-cutting these two men often, but the wallop it delivers come the third act is best left to be experienced. Through displaying the two drastically different speeds of life Marshall and Friedman come from before their worlds collide the film makes the upending of our expectations all the more surprising for, after Marshall arrives in Greenwich, meets his client in Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who has been accused of raping a white socialite in Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), and goes in front of the judge who would be hearing the case (James Cromwell) to request an out of state lawyer help try the case-he is unexpectedly denied the right. Cromwell's Judge Foster forbids Marshall from speaking in his courtroom which includes arguing or examining any witnesses. While, as a viewer, we were under the impression we were seeing a movie about Thurgood Marshall and his power in the courtroom what we actually, almost literally get, is more a movie about his presence in the courtroom.

That said, Marshall doesn't become "The Sam Friedman Story" either, but rather this unexpected set-up allows for something of a dual narrative about Marshall not only being a lawyer on the road, trying cases, investigating race riots, and meeting with local NAACP branches as well as a man who struggles to balance his work and family life, but also the man who brings out the best in others. Marshall exists in this crazy period of time where WWII is happening around the world, but hasn't involved the U.S. yet while the country as a whole was still recovering from the Great Depression that had more or less done away with the Harlem Renaissance that had spanned the 1920's. Marshall, when he gets the brief moment to return home to his wife, Buster (Keesha Sharp), mingles with old friends from college that include the likes of poet Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" writer Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas) who were prominent figures in that aforementioned renaissance where the freedom of a black-dominant place like Harlem produced unique and brilliant artists such as Hughes and Hurston. These were people Marshall knew on a first name basis, people who he ran in the same circles with, and who, above all else, all desired to create some kind of impact and change through the movements they helped usher into existence. It is through this context that we understand better Marshall's particularly driven nature, but also explains this inherent nature to elevate those around him. This added layer of a "buddy cop"-like dynamic, but with lawyers provides not only an opportunity to deviate the expectations of yet another biopic, but it naturally allows for some of Marshall's greatest qualities to come through all the more despite seemingly doing less. The twist of Friedman having to conduct the trial completely on his own with Marshall only there to guide him outside the courtroom and give him knowing glares inside comes rather early in the film and thus endears the audience to accept the turn while keeping the interest and investment throughout by making it about the specifics of the case, the trials and tribulations both Marshall and Friedman deal with in and outside the courthouse, and the bigger themes and ideas that come out of the facts of the case as it is further mined by both sides, including Strubing's lead prosecutor, Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens), who is widely known as an unreconstructed bigot .

Marshall and Friedman defend their client, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), in Marshall.
Photo by Barry Wetcher
Director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang) pitches the courtroom drama as this kind of bigger structure for alluringly conveying what he believes needs to come out of a movie concerning Thurgood Marshall which is that of the essence of a man determined to make change. And Marshall does in fact do everything one feels a good courtroom drama should: not only are we invested in our titular character and his sidekick and their lives outside of the main event, but we become more than wrapped up in the events of the night in question. Through all of this we get a sense that while Marshall invests his heart and soul into figuring out a way to get to the bottom of Spell's case this isn't the make or break case for him or the NAACP, but rather another in a line of cases that will eventually culminate to mean something much larger. In other words, this never ends for Marshall and yet-as demonstrated by Boseman's performance and the script's decision to display his vigor even when dealt the biggest blow of all-he still does every possible thing he can to prove his client's innocence. That said, Marshall could have stood to be a little more cutting in terms of the subject matter it covers as we're not only talking about racial and religious prejudice here (though the former is certainly the focus), but there are threads of domestic abuse and depression that come along with the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. In this, Hudlin chooses to take the more entertaining route with his film while only hinting at the sadness and heartbreak of the actual events through small details that largely consist of silent looks or glances from one character to another. While Boseman and Gad are very much the stars of the piece, and they are terrific together, there is much to be said for Brown and Hudson as well as they both convey such damaged and beaten mentalities that it's never easy to damn either of them for telling versions of their own truth to best suit their potential futures. For lack of a better term, this isn't simply a case of black and white where the dividing line is easily drawn, but screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff are very clearly intent on creating a narrative where the ground is gray and where the audience can understand either perspective. It's also an interesting touch that the screenwriters chose to tell of a case Marshall was a part of that didn't take place in the south where it would have been easier to vilify Strubing, but this choice now feels even more timely as it's clear racism is still alive-even in places we thought we might be able to put a period on it. And this is what Marshall does best-subvert our expectations of what it easily could have been by being something else that, while still largely derivative, is a handsomely made and well-acted account of a necessary story that is endlessly charming without being consistently heavy.