The filmmakers behind Marshall understand what it takes to make a successful biography. Instead of attempting to cram an entire life into two hours, they have targeted a single representative event from the life of 20th century African-American icon Thurgood Marshall. By limiting the film’s time-frame, the narrative is allowed to breathe and, as a result, we get a distinct snapshot not only of the main character but of the setting that resulted in his historical importance.
The focus of Marshall is the 1941 trial of “The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.” At the time, the wily 32-year old Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), one of the NAACP’s star lawyers, is traveling around the country litigating questionable cases with black defendants. Most are in the South but the cash-strapped organization, needing an influx of donations from wealthy supporters in the North, sends Marshall to Bridgeport Connecticut to team with local (and reluctant) white Jewish attorney Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad). Their case is steeped in racial undertones. A wealthy married Greenwich socialite, Mrs. Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), accuses her African-American chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of multiple rapes and pushing her off a bridge, he’s arrested and, as a result, frightened white people across the country began firing their black domestic workers. Arriving in Bridgeport, Marshall quickly realizes that Spell’s “confession” was coerced. And it’s obvious that Judge Colin Foster (James Cromwell) sides with prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), ruling that, although Marshall may sit at the defense table as co-counsel, he can’t speak in the courtroom because he’s from out-of-state.
The film Marshall takes liberties with the historical record but the basic facts are accurate. It unfolds more as a courtroom drama than a traditional bio-pic and one can make an argument that it’s as much about co-counsel Friedman as it is about Marshall. In fact, Friedman is the one with the discernable character arc, evolving from an uncertain small-town insurance lawyer to a nationally-known civil rights attorney. Thurgood Marshall, already a famous and accomplished man at the outset, is little changed at the conclusion.
The acting is consistently very good. In fact, a question – when is Chadwick Boseman going to be accepted as a major star? This is his third high profile biography of towering real-life figures (he also played Jackie Robinson in the film 42 and James Brown in Get on Up). His portrayal of the young Thurgood isn’t likely to win an Oscar nomination but the performance illustrates his versatility and charismatic personality. However, Marshall is as much Josh Gad’s movie as Boseman’s. In fact the script somewhat marginalize its own protagonist. But the Joseph Spell case was argued by two men, not one. Gad, known better for semi-comedic roles, acquits himself most admirably in a purely dramatic part. He and Boseman have strong chemistry and Marshall is, in part, a mismatched buddy film. The supporting cast includes Dan Stevens (from the British Downton Abbey series) as the prosecutor and James Cromwell as Judge Foster and both are excellent. Sterling K. Brown’s (from TV’s This Is Us) grave, intense Spell registers very strongly. Kate Hudson lends an imperious, defiant air to the battered wife who’s either telling the truth or lying (for reasons to be determined). The intelligent, sharply-focused script is by Jacob and Michael Koskoff.
At the time when the movie Marshall is set, the title character is still a quarter-century away from being named as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, but the seeds of what would lead President Lyndon Johnson to nominate him are much in evidence. “The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell” was not one of Marshall’s most famous cases but it provides the filmmakers an opportunity to illustrate the characteristics that made him a respected and beloved lawyer and civil rights figure. Marshall is not a biography of Thurgood Marshal. There is enough material in Marshall’s life-story for another two or three movies, but this one’s an engaging chapter in the early morning hours of the civil rights era.
Marshall is a top-class courtroom drama with a beautifully balanced screenplay, excellent performances and is very easily recommended.
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