When I watched the trailer of “Marshall” several months ago, I was caught off guard because it looked like the movie did not intend to be your average biographical drama film. Looking quite bold and confident, the movie seemed to want to be something more exciting and energetic, and that certainly drew my attention even though I was not that sure about whether the movie would work as well as intended.
After quickly going down despite considerable positive responses from critics and audiences, the movie was released on DVD and Blu-ray in US during last month, and I am happy to report that the movie is worthwhile to watch on the whole. Although it feels heavy-handed at times, the movie mostly works well thanks to its competent direction and solid performances, and it is engaging to see how it plays well with its genre conventions while paying enough attention to its social/historical subjects.
As reflected by its title, the movie is about Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), and its story focuses on the early period of Marshall’s distinguished legal career. Before eventually becoming the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1967, Marshall were known well for his numerous legal fights against racial segregation, and, as shown from the opening scene of the film, he already distinguished himself a lot as a prominent lawyer/activist working for the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP) in 1940.
While he has just completed his latest legal task in Oklahoma, Marshall gets another case to handle as soon as he returns to New York City. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, an uneducated black man named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) stands accused of the rape and attempted murder of Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the wife of a rich white man for whom Spell has worked as a chauffeur. Although the chance of winning the case is not so big as many white people already believe that Spell is guilty as charged, Marshall’s boss sends Marshall to Bridgeport anyway because it is an important case which will affect the lives of many black people out there in one way or another.
Not long after arriving in Bridgeport, Marshall meets Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance lawyer who happens to be assigned to the task of getting Marshall admitted to the local bar. Because he virtually has no experience in criminal law, Friedman wants to hand the case to Marshall as soon as possible, but, unfortunately, the situation does not go well for him right from the first day of the trial. Judge Foster (James Cromwell) does not allow Marshall to speak at the trial just because Marshall is technically not licensed to practice law in Connecticut, so Friedman has no choice but to become Spell’s lead counsel instead.
At least, Marshall is allowed to give advices to Friedman during the trial, so Friedman always has to pay attention to Marshall before making any crucial decision, and the screenplay by Michael and Jacob Koskoff generates considerable humor from their rather strained partnership. While Marshall frequently gives Friedman signals or advices, Friedman feels more nervous and agitated even as trying his best, and there eventually comes a point where he makes a major mistake while Marshall happens to be absent for a while.
Nevertheless, as they constantly pull and push each other in their common legal struggle, Marshall and Friedman comes to respect each other. While Friedman finds himself influenced more and more by Marshall’s integrity and dignity, Marshall comes to appreciate his accidental partner’s diligence and dedication, and the movie makes sharp points on the racism in the American society during the 1940s through their respective viewpoints. There is a brief but pointed scene where a minor supporting black character tells Marshall about how he is not allowed to practice law despite his license, and then there is also a small dramatic moment when Friedman is unexpectedly approached by a fellow Jewish guy at their local synagogue.
The courtroom scenes in the film are often clichéd with expected twists, but they are still effective thanks to the talented cast members assembled by director Reginald Hudlin. Chadwick Boseman, who has risen up to his stardom as playing Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013) and James Brown in “Get on Up” (2014), is cool and charismatic as required, and Josh Gad effectively complements his co-star while showing his more serious side as he previously did in “Jobs” (2013). As a prosecutor who is determined to make the trial into another stepping stone for his ambition, Dan Stevens is as odious as demanded, and James Cromwell sternly presides over the case except one silent dramatic moment when his character chooses to follow his conscience and compassion. Sterling K. Brown, who has been notable since his acclaimed performance in TV series “This Is Us”, brings some human nuances to his character, and so does Kate Hudson, who makes her character more sympathetic than expected.
While as old-fashioned as, say, John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), “Marshal” has enough energy and sincerity to support its conventional story, and the overall result is an engaging genre product with a number of enjoyable elements to appreciate. Sure, I did see through its manipulation right from the start, but I went along with that anyway, and I got a fair share of entertainment in the end.