If no one has said it, I will: Chadwick Boseman continues to be one of our finest actors, someone that I think will rank among the best of his generation if he continues to pick quality work and Hollywood manages to use his skills well. He also has been the default 'Biopic of Great African-American Men Star': from Jackie Robinson to James Brown and now Thurgood Marshall, Boseman seems in danger of doing nothing but biopics. If not for Black Panther, Boseman's agent would have to grab a copy of 'Who's Who in American History' to find his/her client's next project.
As a side note, I would be thrilled if he played Frederick Douglass, a man whose life story cries out desperately for a film.
Marshall does what many smart biopics do: focus on one part of a person's life to tell that person's story, and it is a shame that the film got lost in the late-year release shuffle, for it is a well-acted film that plays out like a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird. Minus a few stabs at focusing on elements outside the main story, Marshall tells its story well.
NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) travels the country representing African-Americans who are being tried for crimes due to their race. His latest case is that of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur accused of raping Mrs. Strubing (Kate Hudson), his white employer's wife. The charges against Spell shock the tony Bridgeport, Connecticut community, with rich white people firing their servants in a panic that the 'Negroes' will soon start committing wild acts of violence and vandalism.
Marshall insists that he and the NAACP represent only innocent people, so he asks Spell if he raped Mrs. Strubing, and he denies this. Being from out-of-state, Marshall cannot try the case himself without a sponsor. Enter civil attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a nebbish attorney who does not want to get involved in this. It's his brother Irwin that essentially pushes him into representing Spell. Worse, not only has Friedman never tried a criminal case, his forte being insurance claims, but the judge in the trial (James Cromwell) reluctantly agrees to allow Marshall to be an attorney but forbids him from speaking, making Friedman the de facto lead attorney.
The prosecution is headed up by Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), whose WASP patrician/Aryan manner are on full display, his political ambitions set sky-high. The trial begins, and soon Marshall and Friedman start getting harassed and assaulted, not just for defending Spell, but for being black and Jewish respectively. As the trial takes twists and turns, Marshall on many occasions has to serve as virtual puppet-master to an increasingly resentful Friedman, until a throwaway comment by a woman leads Marshall to see the obvious: Mrs. Strubing was not raped.
It was consensual sex, meaning both Mrs. Strubing and Joseph Spell lied. This is very explosive in the 1930s, even in New England, but it is the truth. In the end, with the jury about to deliver a verdict, Marshall is sent off on another case, forcing Friedman to give the closing remarks, even if Marshall dictated them.
To the surprise of everyone, the jury delivers a not guilty verdict, and eventually Thurgood Marshall goes on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
Marshall is more courtroom drama about the Spell case than an actual biopic on Thurgood Marshall, and even if the case is highly reminiscent of certain elements of To Kill a Mockingbird, the case itself proves quite fascinating. I note the similarity to the Harper Lee book only in that in both, a black man is accused of raping a white woman. At one point, Marshall himself asks, "Did you rape Eleanor Strubing?", and I momentarily though he was going to ask if he'd raped Mayella Ewell.
It's fascinating how history and fiction seem to collide, especially in how director Reginald Hudlin would show via black-and-white scenes the various scenarios: the rape, the consensual intercourse. In many ways, Marshall plays like a detective story, as our intelligent title character and his more dimwitted associate work to solve this mystery.
It's a credit to Hudlin and cowriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff that most of the focus was on the Spell case. The film's only real major setbacks where whenever we wandered into Marshall or Friedman's private lives. We see the Marshalls struggle to have children and the Friedmans fearing for relatives in Europe as the Nazi menace grows, but while there was nothing wrong with these moments they seemed to come from a previous draft that are given to us and then forgotten.
One curious bit was when Marshall and his wife 'Buster' (Keesha Sharp) are at a nightclub with Thurgood's frenemy Langston Hughes and whom I figure is his male lover. Then as if to add more confusion to the mix, in comes in Zora Neale Hurston, who seems quite flirtatious with Langston. Marshall seems to have a dislike for Hughes, but whether its one based on a disdain for Hughes' poetry or what he considers inaction at home to fight injustice but racing off to Europe to fight injustice the film does not answer.
Again, something that pops in and out with nary a comment, which I think stretched the film longer than it should have been.
Here, we see why Chadwick Boseman simply needs to do more films, television and theatrical appearances. With a firm, clipped manner of speech, Boseman makes this Thurgood Marshall a shrewd, cool customer, unafraid and one step ahead of everyone. He is smooth, clever, courageous and even amusing, an embodiment of Marcus Miller's jazz-inspired score.
It was a wonderful performance and another hit for Boseman in his collection of fine performances.
Gad was not quite up there, though I think the somewhat stereotypical take on Friedman as a reluctant nebbish hamstrung by his ineptness and insecurity did not help. He had only one good moment where he could show he was more than what he was seen as when he fought against anti-Semites who assaulted him. Apart from that though, it would have been nice to show Friedman as growing in confidence and conviction.
Marshall also showed us what good performers Hudson and Stevens are, the latter as the potential victim or not-quite-villain, the latter as our posh entitled patrician. Credit especially goes to Stevens for adopting posh American tones.
Marshall was a strong film about a fascinating case with a fascinating lead figure. Criminally overlooked, it hopefully will get more recognition for giving a pioneer more than his due.
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