Release Date: October 13th, 2017 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Reginald Hudlin Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Derrick Baskin
n 1941, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is the only lawyer working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He jumps around from city to city, tasked with defending cases in which accusations are brought solely because of a suspect’s skin color. He also only works with innocent people (a quality he must evaluate for himself, typically with few absolutes). Marshall has a strong track record and has handled a number of high-profile cases, but his latest assignment, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, just might be his most significant to date.
After concluding a case in Hugo, Oklahoma (during which he argues against a confession beaten out of his client), Marshall is once again well-versed in the rampant racism that permeates all of the scenarios he investigates. And Connecticut is no different, as he’s welcomed with hateful protestors, bigoted thugs who wish to intimidate him, and a judicial system (as well as a law enforcement agency) that is instantly against his client’s right to a fair trial (going so far as to ban Marshall from speaking during the trial and falsifying evidence). He has help, however, in the uncommonly rational Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish lawyer who specializes in uncovering technicalities to indemnify insurance companies of their responsibilities – a career that regularly finds him fighting for the wrong side. Together, the team must sort out the mess of clues and statements that cause Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a negro chauffeur, to be in custody for the rape of Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a fair-haired white socialite.
With bassy riffs and upbeat percussion, a jazzy soundtrack fills the air, imparting a lightheartedness that doesn’t quite fit with the heavy themes on hand. This is paired with plenty of verbal jests, whimsical screen wipes, and comical moments to further lighten the mood. Rather than portraying the case with the severity of “In the Heat of the Night” (or “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Anatomy of a Murder,” to which this plot and subject matter bear a resemblance), the film opts for levity, even during sequences of violence. Rather than imparting a unique identity, the music and editing come across as gimmicks to make the picture feel more like a product of the time period in which it’s set.
“Marshall” doesn’t possess much to distinguish it from other investigative procedurals or courtroom dramas. For the most part, it transpires as if designed from the most standard of templates – with long odds, harsh opposition, surprise witnesses (or rather the prosecution’s manipulation of a surprise witness), dramatically exposed lies, flashbacks that don’t tell the whole truth, humorous cross-examinations, tearful breakdowns at the witness stand, lengthy interrogations or testimony-giving, and a powerful closing argument. The look of the production rarely transcends that of a made-for-television movie, with dialogue, framing, cuts, transitions, and even narrative elements arriving right on schedule and never deviating from the realm of the utterly anticipated.
Nevertheless, the story is fascinating. Based on remarkable true events surrounding a vital historical figure, “Marshall” tells a considerable biographical tale full of sensational details and striking revelations, even if it doesn’t manage to unfurl such components with notable originality. The execution may be lacking, but it’s difficult to ignore the potency of one of the Civil Rights movement’s greatest advocates and the uphill clashes he tackles. By the end, even with pacing issues and the unnecessary drama of familial ordeals, Marshall’s motives and triumphs are grandly inspiring. Additionally, the most artistically commanding shot appears (mere seconds of imagery that could be easily overlooked), with the eventual Supreme Court Justice moving into frame adjacent to a “Whites Only” sign above a drinking fountain, momentously signifying the great journey still ahead in the perpetual battle for equality.
– Mike Massie