REVIEW: ‘Marshall’ ★★★ and ½

By Felix Albuerne Jr., Film Buff
Last Updated: Thursday, October 12, 2017, 4:00 PM EDT

“Marshall” is an ambitious courtroom drama that aims for the look and sound of the genre’s all-time classics while also dramatizing a real-life challenge in the early career of one of the United States’ most revered legal figures, Thurgood Marshall.

The film’s star-studded cast does much to boost the film towards its aspirations. Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad turn in strong performances, while Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, and James Cromwell all make the most of what are essentially stock roles.

There is a downside to the production’s old-style Hollywood approach to the material, however. It strikes at the authenticity of the film, its complexities reduced to easier archetypes and well-worn dramatic tropes.

The result is an entertaining film that feels more like entertainment than actual history, and that result may not be received as well by some audiences as others.

What’s it about?

In 1941, Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) was the sole lawyer behind the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, whose sole purpose was to defend African American men and women in courts of law around the country when the cases built against them were purported to be based on issues of race.

Based out of Maryland, Marshall is sent to Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) accused of rape and attempted murder by his employer’s wife, Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing (Hudson).

To take on the case, Marshall needs the help of a local attorney. That attorney turns out to be Sam Friedman (Gad), whose career to that point was built on defending insurance companies from claims, not criminal justice cases.

Friedman the pragmatist questions the effort of mounting a defense, especially after the prosecution offers a plea deal, and fears the consequences for his career in taking on such a high-profile, racially charged case.

Marshall the crusader, however, sees the big picture, and the consequences for African Americans in Connecticut and beyond who work as domestics and might lose their livelihoods out of employers’ fears of being raped or murdered.

The stakes, both political and personal, could not be higher for all involved, and so the unlikely pair set out to argue the truth in front of the jury, even as doing so brings forth surprising revelations and increasing danger for them both.

Boseman larger than life (again)

Some might say Chadwick Boseman is best known these days for playing Marvel’s T’Challa/Black Panther in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and next year’s “Black Panther.”

The truth, however, is he’s been larger-than-life iconic figures for quite a while now, including Jackie Robinson in 2013’s “42” and James Brown in 2014’s “Get on Up.” In those films and in “Marshall,” Boseman rises to very different challenges to present believable, relatable portrayals of giants, and does so in a way that’s fundamentally different each time.

His turn as Thurgood Marshall is charismatic, fearless and fiery. He makes the fury that drives the young lawyer day in and day out to champion those he’s sees being victimized by systemic racism palpable, even when it’s buried beneath the man’s charm, intelligence, and understanding of law.

Boseman’s Marshall provides a perfect foil for Gad’s understated, everyman rendition of Friedman, an unaspiring family man who thanks to the case awakens to the reality that he, as a Jewish man, has more in common with the man he’s defending than he previously realized, and may have more to offer the world than simply settling insurance claims.

Authenticity vs. style

As stated earlier, what keeps “Marshall” from ascending into the top tier of timeless celluloid courtroom dramas is, ironically, its effort to emulate the mode and expression of prior classics of the genre.

The film’s script, by Connecticut attorney Michael Koskoff, shows extensive research into the legal intricacies and implications of State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, but doesn’t take the same time and effort to develop the characters in the film around Marshall and Friedman beyond one-note characters.

There’s also a bit of old time Hollywood grandiosity to the dialogue at times in “Marshall”, which in a way makes sense if you’re out to evoke memories of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “12 Angry Men,” but works against the authenticity of the film almost to the point of being distracting.

Just how much that dissonance between style and authenticity and how much it will affect a viewer’s experience will no doubt vary greatly, depending on who is watching. For some, it may not matter at all, while for others, it may leave them feeling as though this story deserved a more modern, grounded treatment.

Worth seeing?

“Marshall” is absolutely worth seeing for fans of courtroom dramas and fans of the principal talent involved. It’s an important and fascinating story from the life of one of the most pivotal figures in America’s Civil Rights movement, one that arguably isn’t as well-known due to time and the fact that the real-life Thurgood Marshall accomplished so much in his life that it’s tough to remember it all.

It’s also a film whose themes will no doubt resonate in today’s political and legal climate, as the conversation about race and race relations continues to this very day with much progress still ahead to be made.

Could it have been better? Yes, but even so, it’s still pretty good.

Marshall

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, and James Cromwell. Directed by Reginald Hudlin.
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.