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‘Marshall’ (review)

Produced by Paula Wagner,
Reginald Hudlin, Jonathan Sanger
Written by Michael Koskoff, Jacob Koskoff
Directed by Reginald Hudlin
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad,
Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown,
James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Sophia Bush

 

Adding humor to a serious subject is quite the cinematic tightrope.

Will it make it fresh, or trivialize the issue?

Does it make the problem more palatable to others, or does it offend those affected?

In Marshall, writers Jacob and Michael Koskoff show us the strength that a wry wit can lend someone in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, such as trying a case in an unfriendly court where not a smile can be found.

In 1941, a young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) travels to Connecticut in order to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) accused of raping a white woman (Kate Hudson). As he is not local, he depends on neighborhood insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to assist him in the case. The two lawyers must try to defend a client who is already guilty in the court of racially biased public opinion in order to prove that justice can be served, no matter the color of your skin.

This is one of the smaller cases of Justice Marshall’s long and illustrious career. As such, the gravity is less and allows for more levity and less suspense than one might find in a normal courtroom drama. Many of us already know the outcome of the case, and many of the best parts of the movie come outside the courthouse.

The handful of scenes at home and in clubs round out Marshall’s personal life and help to show the audience something soft and new about the confident smooth-talking lawyer. As he answers a tragic call about his wife’s health shortly after reveling in her recently revealed pregnancy, we can see some of the man behind the legend. But be certain, the vast majority of the film gives us a portrayal full of swagger and sharp barbs thrown without reserve at opposing counsel, the press, and anyone who dares question him.

Marshall also details the personal life of Friedman, who was a reluctant partner through most of the ordeal.

As murmurs abound when he walks into synagogue shortly after taking the case you can sense the tension that he must have dealt with in a time when Jews were barely more welcome than Blacks. Josh Gad was affable, even in his reticence. Over the 118 minutes he grows visibly warmer towards both Marshall and the cause. The two are a strange pair but the comedic rapport works without a single flat joke.

There are certainly moments that are charged with violence, anger, and heated exchanges but they are side items simply there to remind us of the time period. Who wouldn’t expect the obligatory scene where both lawyers are confronted and attacked by neighborhood racists who would like to put them “back in their place”?

It is the exchanges before and after, heavily laced with the gallows humor the oppressed know so well, that endear Marshall and Friedman to the audience.

While there is change and growth in Gad’s portrayal, Boseman spends the majority of the film showcasing the unflappable public face of Thurgood Marshall. He is certainly making a name for himself as the go-to actor for larger than life Black historical figures, but I cannot help wishing for more of those moments where we see Boseman tap into the man’s vulnerability. This is a very minor critique, however, because even though Marshall was written as a mostly one-note character, that note is strong, clear, and very enjoyable. In her supporting role Kate Hudson manages to evoke some sympathy for her character, an amazing feat considering the deplorable nature of the charges. Another strong supporting performance is James Cromwell’s turn as the bitter judge, who makes a stern adversary to Marshall.

There are bound to be more dynamic and multifaceted movies covering the life of America’s first Black Supreme Court Justice, but Marshall is an enjoyable look at one of his seminal cases. The lack of gravitas for the film gives way to a bright and engaging performance that reminds us that occasionally, the right people are able to get the last laugh.

 

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