Film Review: Marshall

This is the Thurgood Marshall story that most of us never knew. Or some of it, anyway.
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Thurgood Marshall was the first black man to be named to the United States Supreme Court—where he served with great distinction for 24 years. But even before reaching that pinnacle, he led a life of notable achievements as a crusading lawyer leading the fight for civil rights in the era of “Whites Only” public water fountains—along the way winning far more legal battles than he lost.

Marshall celebrates one of those victories, and in the process paints its hero as a handsome, charming, righteously two-fisted champion of the downtrodden. Which is, of course, what he was—although a barroom brawl scene in which he takes down two bigoted bumpkins with those two fists (plus a head-butt) smacks of a certain dramatic license. Chalk it up to classic Hollywoodizing of the source material. That would also serve to explain the film’s shortcomings as a whole.

As it punches up its protagonist’s man-of-action cred—while somewhat sugarcoating his noble bearing—the film also oversimplifies the nuances of the courtroom drama that provides the main plotline. Presumably, the motivation here was creating a more mass-appealing Marshall. But the result is a biopic that is not always as compelling nor hard-hitting as it could have been. The uniformly fine performances and the underdog nature of the court case that takes up most of the running time make for a more than watchable film. But the experience is something less than memorable.

Set in 1941, the film introduces Marshall as the one-man legal department of the newly formed NAACP. As such, he is dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where limo driver Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of TV’s “This Is Us”) has been accused of raping and attempting to murder Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the upper-crust woman he works for. Since even relatively enlightened New Englanders were inherently racist back then, defending a black man against such charges seems at best a thankless task, at worst a suicide mission. Before you can say To Kill a Mockingbird, this uphill struggle has commanded your attention.

Marshall faces a further handicap since he isn’t a member of the Connecticut bar, and so must cede the actual litigation to local lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who has never tried a criminal case before. This sets up a Cyrano de Bergerac-style courtroom dynamic, in which second chair Marshall feeds cross-examination lines to nervous, stammering first chair Friedman. It’s at times mildly suspenseful, and at other times mildly amusing. But it’s really the only fresh wrinkle in the otherwise by-the-book courtroom dramaturgy. The simmering performance by James Cromwell as the scarifyingly imperious presiding judge brings an edge to the proceedings, as do some heated exchanges, once Hudson’s plaintiff-with-secrets takes the witness stand. But at this point in the history of legal drama, a front-page trial like the one that unfolds here should feel more momentous. Especially if the protagonist is the man who once successfully argued Brown v. the Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Marshall, Chadwick Boseman is forceful, fiery and charismatic. But as written, the character is a tad too perfect, and less than multi-dimensional. We see signs of self-righteous arrogance and of trouble in his marriage, but nothing that couldn’t be explained away by the pressures of the job. Of course, if the film hadn’t been so all about that job—if it had maybe spent more time with Marshall’s wife Buster (the ray-of-light Keesha Sharp), whose now-and-then presence is so fleeting that we never get around to the story of her nickname—we might have at least absorbed one other side of the life behind the legend.

In short, Marshall fails to overcome the intrinsic problem of any biopic about an important personage: too much life, not enough running time. Many such films fall short by narratively spreading themselves too thin. This one does so by focusing too narrowly—and yet not sharply enough.

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