MOVIE REVIEW: Marshall
Opening Night Film and Special Presentation of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival
MARSHALL-- 4 STARS
Can you learn about a popular band by listening to their B-sides instead of their greatest hits? Can you get a sense of the brilliance within a writer from their early drafts and not their published masterpieces? Can you spot the traits of a future Hall of Fame sports legend solely by their work in college or the minor leagues before the professional ranks? The answer to each is quite likely the same: sometimes, but not always. Tally one in the sometimes column for Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall and its biographical podium choice.
Biopic films commonly gravitate to the “greatest hits” of whoever the subject is, condensing history and nuance in favor of a wide, safe, and cursory sweep. Using the greatest hits blueprint, one would think any big-time film treatment about Thurgood Marshall, an American hero for racial equality, has to include Brown vs. Board of Education and his ascension to become the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice. That’s where the greatness is supposed to be found, right?
You won’t find those memorable highlights in Marshall. In fact, Hudlin’s film only presents a single obscure criminal case footnote from Marshall’s early NAACP days, one 14 years before Brown vs. Board Education and 27 years before joining the Supreme Court. Even more outlandish, it was a case where Thurgood was banned from arguing in court and forced to assist another lawyer solely behind-the-scenes in silence. How is anyone supposed to capture the man’s greatness from that scenario? That’s the redeeming genius of Marshall. With those intentional handicaps in place, the film’s dramatized character study allows you to still absorb the complete measure of the man as if you were watching a masterful symphony.
Chadwick Boseman of 42 and Get On Up fame portrays the Thurgood Marshall we meet in 1940. Working as the founder and executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Marshall was assigned to the case of The State of Connecticut vs. Joseph Spell in Bridgeport, north of his Maryland stomping grounds. Joseph Spell (This is Us Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown) was a black chauffeur accused of raping his employer’s wife (Kate Hudson), leading to a publicity storm of racially-charged outcry and slanderous newspaper headlines.
Local civil lawyer and insurance specialist Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad, became attached to the Spell case as a technicality proxy to pass it to Marshall. Instead of granting credentials for Thurgood to practice out of his state of licensure, the Judge (James Cromwell) denies Marshall’s vocal participation as any form of lead counsel, placing the case in Friedman’s hands against the sharp upper crust prosecutor Loren Wills (Dan Stevens). Now thrust into the forensic fire together, Friedman and Marshall have to learn to work together, seek the real truth to the Spell story, expose racism, and prove innocence.
In more ways than one, Thurgood Marshall is not the star of his own movie, thanks to the shared circumstances that lead to collegial chemistry and growing respect between Friedman and Marshall. Josh Gad delivers his best dramatic performance to date as the belittled Jew who has to do all of the talking when the stage lights of the courtroom are on. This sizable balance of Friedman’s piece of the plight is more than a little problematic for the deserving Thurgood Marshall figure. Gad’s co-leading role counts as a White Savior Yarmulke, less than a full-on hat or suit of armor, but it is still stolen thunder even if it’s commendable.
This narrative dilemma circles one’s mind back to the offbeat choice of filming this particular small criminal case instead of chronicling a winning greatest hit for the legend this film is supposed to featuring. If this is one Thurgood movie we’re going to get, did we need the cuddly white guy to hold our hand? Simply put, Marshall could have used more Marshall.
What puts a great deal of that worriment at ease is the Thurgood Marshall portrayal on-screen that talks the talk and walks the walk, even when the rules try to keep him from doing either action. Appropriately labeled “Mr. Biopic” by friend-of-the-page Emmanuel Noisette of E-Man’s Movie Reviews, Chadwick Boseman looks nothing like 1940’s Marshall, but the Black Panther superhero wasn’t selected for his looks. Rather, in his fourth biographical role, Boseman brings the unyielding confidence to achieve the talk and the walk. Through his mettle and focus, the 41-year-old exudes every fiber of dedication to the cause and communicates the righteousness towards justice necessary to present the foundational qualities of the future man that will go on to perform those greatest hits found in school textbooks.
Marshall might be dripping with dramatization in its crime procedural trajectory and Grisham Lite tone as a plaintive court drama, but the film plays like a welcome crowd pleaser. More than a few bits of humor really hit home and several small victorious moments over bigotry along the way elicit popcorn cheers. Marshall is Reginald Hudlin’s first trip back to the director’s chair in fifteen years (2002’s forgettable Serving Sara) and first sure-fire hit in 25 years (1992’s Boomerang). This will be your Hidden Figures of this awards season.
Best of all, by choosing a sliver of forgotten history and delivering a satisfying experience with it, Marshall smartly whets the audience’s educational appetite for more. It is almost a guaranteed certainty that those engrossed by Marshall will head home afterward and open a few Google searches and Wikipedia pages to learn more about the work of Thurgood Marshall (heck, give this film a sequel or a series). That’s an enormous victory of engaging movie entertainment. Instead of checking off boxes of prior knowledge and easily meeting predetermined expectations from widely known events, Marshall challenged itself and succeeded in showcasing greater with less.
LESSON #1: THE LAW IS A WEAPON-- The aggressive goals and tactics of the NAACP being operated through Thurgood Marshall bring to mind the term of “lawfare” that wouldn’t become coined for another 35 years after 1940. “Lawfare” can include delegitimizing the opposition, damaging character, and/or winning a public relations victory, even in losing effort that could boost martyrdom. The tactics look effective when winning and disrespectfully risky in defeat.
LESSON #2: INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN LARGER ISSUES-- One of the film’s marketing hashtags is #StandUpForSomething. Friedman and Marshall are putting their reputations on the line, subjecting themselves to hateful bullying, and find themselves outmatched in resources and favor. However, they represent individuals willing to take a stance on a larger issue. Connecting to Lesson #1, each victorious case against racial injustice cleared a citizen’s name and, more importantly, was also seen as a blow against the system in a battle that needed escalation. One by one, through courtroom stages like the Spell case and dozens more, Thurgood Marshall built a body of work that cemented legal precedence which paved the way for future legal victories and made necessary, larger systemic changes more possible.