Marshall Film Review :
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The 1940s legal thriller “Marshall” is a solid drama that gives viewers a glimpse into an alternate universe—one where African-American actors could be treated as old school movie stars, in period pieces that are less concerned with giving audiences a solemn, Oscar-baiting history lesson than an entertaining story that happens to be drawn from life.
Chadwick Boseman, Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing important Black Americans, adds another icon to his gallery: NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, a New Yorker dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to defend a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who stands accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white society woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin(“House Party,” “Boomerang”) adapts a script by the father-son screenwriting team of Michael and Jacob Koskoff that jumps off from a real case. Many of the most seemingly outrageous twists are pulled from the record.
One is a decision by the sitting judge (James Cromwell), an imperious old white man who doesn’t appreciate having a cocky black New Yorker in his court, to turn Marshall into a mute bystander by declaring that only attorneys licensed to practice law in Connecticut can argue before his bench. This feels like an early checkmate intended to send Spell straight to prison: the NAACP only assigned Marshall to Bridgeport in the first place because the white majority had already made up its mind about Spell’s guilt and no local lawyers would take his case.
And so the hero is forced to use his co-counsel, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), an insurance lawyer who’s never tried a criminal case before, as a sock puppet. He works out details of their strategy behind the scenes, then guides Friedman during jury selection and opening arguments via handwritten notes, facial reactions, and irritated sighs and grunts. From here, “Marshall” turns into a mismatched buddy film, of a kind that we’ve never seen before.
Although Boseman is 100% credible as a brilliant attorney, especially when Marshall and Friedman are trying to work around the judge’s restrictions, his performance as Marshall is not an imitation; nor is it overly concerned with giving us a true psychological portrait of Thurgood Marshall the man. It’s more of a classic Hollywood alpha male badass performance, in the vein of Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, and other 20th century white superstars who reveled in playing sarcastic, sexy, domineering jerks, but were so exciting to watch—whether orating, listening, smoking a cigarette in a jazz club, or just wearing an impeccably tailored suit and walking from point A to point B—that you enjoyed them no matter what their characters did. This Thurgood Marshall is so accomplished at such a young age—having already argued his first U.S. Supreme Court case, and claimed Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and Zora Neale Hurston (Chilli) as drinking buddies—that when he arrives in Bridgeport he offhandedly orders Friedman to help him with his bags, then pokes fun at him and plays head-games with him every chance he gets. (Apparently the latter is an actual Thurgood Marshall trait: he was suspended twice from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University for pranks and hazing.) He’s a bit of a bastard at times.
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