One would expect a film about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, to focus on his most well-known and significant case, the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision; instead, Reginald Hudlin’s new film, Marshall, depicts the events surrounding a 1940 case from Connecticut in which a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of raping and beating a white socialite (Kate Hudson).
Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), an NAACP attorney, is asked to defend the chauffeur but the judge (James Cromwell) refuses to let Marshall take the lead on the case or even speak in court, thus requiring that the defense use a local attorney, Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad) to take the lead in the courtroom, only permitting Marshall to plot strategy and advise Friedman on witness interrogation.
Marshall is a very good film, with excellent performances all around; focusing on a case early in Marshall’s career that is not as well known as Brown frees Boseman to play him as a young, witty, somewhat cocky lawyer who is not the elder statesman that Marshall later became.
Boseman, who has previously played such-real life figures as Jackie Robinson and James Brown, does an outstanding job as Marshall and he is matched by Gad and Brown though Hudson doesn’t fare quite as well in a rather pedestrian and underwritten role.
The film does an excellent job of depicting the racism of the day, not only the prejudice against blacks but against Jews as well, though at times the characterizations lean toward the cartoonish; for instance, the lead prosecutor in the case, played by Dan Stevens with little more than a sneer, might as well have been twirling a mustache during his scenes. Likewise, having Marshall and Friedman beaten by local thugs on the same night, while cutting back and forth between the two assaults, was a bit heavy handed.
Despite a few other odd lapses – for instance, much is made during jury selection of the decision to put a young white woman on the panel, leading one to assume she will play a key role in determining the verdict, a plot point that goes nowhere – the film is well paced, well acted and does a great job of illuminating the beginning of a distinguished legal career, thus earning 6 out of 7 of my run-on sentences.