Is Chadwick Boseman the new Meryl Streep? He’s certainly got her knack for channeling historical figures into impressive screen characters. He played a “good gawd!” James Brown in “Get on Up” and hit a solid home run as dignified Jackie Robinson in “42.” Now in “Marshall,” about the 1940s legal career of young Thurgood Marshall, Boseman moves and amuses in tandem. In director Reginald Hudlin’s efficiently entertaining drama, the star polishes the crusading legal icon to a dazzling gleam.
Don’t confuse this with preachy, moralizing history. “Marshall” is not an eat-your-spinach civics lesson. It’s a fictional piece loosely based on fact. The script, by Michael Koskoff, a Connecticut civil rights attorney, and his screenwriter son Jacob Koskoff combines the kind of detail that law nerds will appreciate with solid, vivid character portraits.
The story offers a novel narrative for a great man biopic, focusing on a forgotten footnote in his career. It turns a courthouse suspense drama into a social metaphor, blending a crime story, a mystery, a couple of mano a mano brawls and a dash of risque action to spice things up. And on those alluring standards, it works nicely. I can’t say anything about the film’s authenticity, but it’s enjoyable.
The movie dramatizes Marshall’s early days as the NAACP’s top lawyer, representing black defendants in whatever jurisdictions require his sharp courtroom abilities. In this case, his focus is a 1941 court case in posh Greenwich, Conn., a rape trial that pitted a wealthy socialite and a black chauffeur against each other on the witness stand.
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The driver, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, who won an Emmy as prosecutor Christopher Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson”), was accused by his boss’ wife, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), of rape and attempted murder. Spell, who had a less-than-spotless past, was arrested, and after a lengthy police interrogation, authorities said he had confessed. The story of the sensational criminal case spread, causing large numbers of black servants to be fired across the Northeast.
Marshall found the accounts to be contradictory and confusing. But the judge did not allow Marshall, an experienced criminal lawyer and brilliant tactician who lacked credentials to practice in Connecticut, to even speak in the courtroom. The zealous Marshall arm-twisted a young Jewish insurance attorney, Samuel Friedman (master of comic relief Josh Gad), to step up in his place. Friedman examined witnesses and argued the case while Marshall called the plays from the side. Because Friedman had never handled a jury trial, let alone a criminal case, Marshall basically had to coach him on every move.
At this point in his career, Marshall was little like the jovial elder statesman that most remember from his time on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was a rising star in his early 30s, a red-hot fighter for justice, as well as a swaggering regular at Harlem nightclubs with famous friends including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
No matter where he was, he was the smartest guy in the room. Boseman excels in the role, radiating Marshall’s charismatic sense of humor even in dark and demoralizing circumstances. He fits nicely with Gad in buddy comedy/odd couple mode, sparring personally out of court as much as they collaborate inside.
Hanging in the balance is more than the long sentence facing Spell if he is convicted. The film, like the trial, asks painful questions about American society. Are the courts rigged for some sectors of the population and stacked against others? Would prejudice in an affluent New England city be lesser than in the Deep South or merely markedly different? If both men and women lie for self-protection, is one class to be forgiven and the other condemned? How close have we come to the principle of justice for all?
Hudlin has never made a solid old-school courtroom drama like this. In fact, you could reasonably argue that he’s never made much of a good film at all until now, other than his romping 1990 comedy “House Party.” Here he avoids message movie stereotypes while dealing with issues pertinent to many issues we are still confronting, giving us a feel-good movie at a time when it’s sorely needed.
3 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.