By: Lana K. Wilson-Combs
Chalk up another fine performance for Chadwick Boseman. After his dynamic, star turn as James Brown in the 2014 biopic “Get on Up” and as Jackie Robinson in “42,” Boseman shines again, this time in the new, legal drama, “Marshall.”
Directed by Reginald Hudlin (“Django Unchained”), “Marshall” tells the story of Thurgood Marshall, the young N.A.A.C.P. attorney who rose through the ranks to become the first black man named to the United States Supreme Court.
Marshall served from October 1967 until October 1991. He died on January 24, 1993, but left an indelible mark on American lawmaking.
Marshall’s most famous case as a lawyer was “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,”(1954), in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" public education, as established by Plessy v. Ferguson, was not applicable to public education because it could never be truly equal.
“Marshall” doesn’t focus on that landmark decision. Instead, father-and-son screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff (2015’s “MacBeth”) dive headfirst into the salacious case, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.
Marshall, a cocky and charismatic thirty-three-year-old New York N.A.A.C.P. attorney is sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1940 to represent Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, TV’s “This Is Us”). He's a black man accused of rape and attempted murder of a rich, white, married woman named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, “Deepwater Horizon”) whom he worked for as a chauffeur.
Marshall is really the only attorney that the N.A.A.C.P. has that will fight for the rights of innocent African-Americans accused of crimes.
But there’s a major problem. Marshall can’t officially be Spell’s attorney because he doesn’t have a license to practice in Connecticut. That’s where young, Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman (a terrific Josh Gad, “A Dog’s Purpose”) comes in, albeit reluctantly.
Friedman is roped in by Marshall to help him represent Spell. Never mind that Friedman is an insurance attorney and has never tried a criminal case.
Marshall pours on his power of persuasion and Friedman soon hits the ground running. What complicates the process leading up to the court case is the crusty, racist Judge Foster (an excellent James Cromwell, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and TV’s “The Detour”). He’s stipulated that Marshall can’t speak at any time in court.
Consequently, during the trial Marshall must prod along an already frightened and nervous Friedman with written notes, and by facial and hand motions.
While this is an interesting approach of “Marshall, it’s also somewhat of a detriment to the film. We don’t get to see the legal theatrics of Marshall at work during the trial. Friedman gets that spotlight. However, outside the courtroom Marshall is the brains who can piece together the case for Friedman.
“Marshall” presents several flashbacks of Spell’s account of what happened. This allows viewers to try and tie everything together and see if it all adds up. Is Spell guilty or innocent? Is he telling the truth to Marshall and Friedman?
Hudlin, along with screenwriter and real-life attorney Michael Koskoff certainly bring a sense of authenticity and authority to the film’s courtroom scenes. Yet, the real strength of the movie centers around Marshall serving as this powerful crusader of justice in the face of systemic oppression and racism. So much is at stake for both attorneys. The odds are stacked against them, yet they must put their own differences aside for the greater good.
Prior to the trial, Friedman and Marshall are forced to defend themselves from being beaten by violent racists. Marshall must also overcome a family tragedy involving his wife Buster (Keesha Sharp, TV’s “Lethal Weapon”) and keep Friedman focused and on point as the multi-layered case slowly begins to unravel in a Perry Mason like style.
The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell case was a turning point in Marshall's budding, legal career. It did wonders for Friedman’s too. He came to respect Marshall on many levels, most notably for his brilliant, legal mind and for giving him the courage to open his. Friedman later became a prominent civil rights attorney.
Boseman looks nothing like a young Thurgood Marshall and that sparked a bit of controversy when the movie was first announced. In all fairness, neither did Sidney Poitier who portrayed Marshall in the 1991 TV miniseries “Separate But Equal.” Still, like Poitier, Boesman brings a towering elegance and sophistication to his portrayal of Marshall.
The movie also benefits from a solid supporting cast. Kate Hudson is terrific as the snooty, aristocrat harboring a “dark” secret and Sterling K. Brown is pure gold. Even Rozanda “Chili” Thomas (TLC) has a brief, but memorable scene channeling Zora Neale Hurston as does Jessie Smollett (TV’s “Empire”) as Langston Hughes.
What makes “Marshall” so powerful is its message of combating social injustice and racism is as relevant today as it was during the Connecticut v. Joseph Spell case 76 years ago.
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Watch This Trailer For "MARSHALL"
Lana K. Wilson-Combs is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association (BFCA), the Black Reel Awards Voting Academy and a Nominating Committee Voting Member for the NAACP Image Awards.