The rights of black citizens inside of the courtroom falls on the hands of one prominent attorney tasked with presenting perhaps the most important case for equal rights ever. ‘Marshall’, is based on an early trial in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It follows the young Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) to conservative Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) charged with sexual assault and attempted murder of his white socialite employer (Kate Hudson). Muzzled by a segregationist court, Marshall partners with a courageous young Jewish lawyer, Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad). Together they mount the defense in an environment of racism and Anti-Semitism. The high profile case and the partnership with Friedman served as a template for Marshall’s creation of the NAACP legal defense fund. ‘Marshall’ is directed by Reginald Hudland, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong adult language.
‘Marshall’ is one of those bittersweet pills to swallow with cinema, not because the film is done terribly or anything of that nature, but it serves as a constant reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go for minorities to receive their entitled justice in this country. In the same ways that this Summer’s ‘Detroit’ offered an original take on racism and the kind of injustices that this disease instills by law and order, ‘Marshall’ too finds its original stance on the subject by pitting us in the heart of the battle with the judicial system, right where it belongs. This certainly isn’t anything original for the subject matter, but what compelled me further with this film where others have failed is in its ability to speak directly to the audience, catering towards the kinds of depictions of events that put us in the chair as a juror and lets us decide our own verdict piece by piece. The cause and effect’s of this film take place in the 40’s, but so much of what Marshall and Friedman deal with in terms of opposition in this film is sadly still present today, proving that many more building blocks must still be stacked, and that its title character was only the first in the much bigger picture.
The screenplay rides heavily on the courtroom drama procedurals, residing an overwhelming majority of its screenplay on the very grounds where these battles are fought and won. If these kind of procedurals don’t do anything for you in film, then ‘Marshall’ might be a difficult sell right off of the bat. For me, I indulge in these kinds of mental chess matches because it shows you that the biggest battles are won in the smallest of margins, giving way to the glaring holes in logic that were in their cases from the very beginning. The marvelous screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff signifies the importance of jury selection, courtroom location, and even lawyer/client relationships that can determine how you choose to hide the negatives of those you serve. Marshall was a student of the game in this perspective, and the film has enough leverage to dabble in the cerebral of one of the truly great minds of the game without becoming silly. There’s something beyond intelligent about the way the Koskoff’s depict this courtroom, leaving just enough room for the theatrics within a deposition to leave the audience watching glued to the screen.
As a biopic, there is a healthy offering of what makes Thurgood the kind of modern day legend that he has become. He’s a constant workaholic who the movie points out “Is depended upon by thirteen million African Americans”, and what this establishes within this particular story is that this man is rarely ever home, sacrificing a life with his beautiful wife to serve as the profit to wake this world up. I found him to be easily respectable on this sacrifice alone, but even more so for the way the Koskoff’s instill that at the end of the day he is only human. There are some adversities and challenges with being on the road so much that don’t garner him in the most appealing of lights, but it proves that the film isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty in valuing the truth of the material. If I did have some slight problems with the film, it’s in the early minutes of the third act that do come across as sluggish. At 113 minutes, this is a lengthy sit, but there’s nothing that can easily be cut without doing more harm to the integrity of the case. This is a problem because the minutes do start to catch up later when it feels like this film should be wrapping up, only to have another twenty minutes. Beyond this, the only other problem I had were with some of the longshots in logic that the people around Thurgood open his eyes to that play just as important into his case. We’ve all seen these scenes where a character will speak a throwaway line, only for a lightbulb to go off in the main character that makes him rush out of bed to tie everything together. In this instance, the scene is just a little too big of a leap for me in tying it all together, and it’s in those brief examples where the film sometimes sacrifices so much of the intelligence that it pieced together patiently.
I want to talk about presentation as well, because so much of the value within this picture is in the smooth transitions that Hudland and company preserve in replicating the style of its title character, as well as production that give it the authentic spin of the age. The musical score by composer Marcus Miller echoes the vibes of the jazz music age with such soft and tender focus on horns, cello’s, and of course the importance of piano that add class to any circumstance. In these tones, Thurgood walks with an air of confidence that makes his character anything but unlikeable, preserving him with the kind of swagger known to overtake a room. The visual compass as well sparks some original dabs in editing that give the movie character to play into the procedural stance. This isn’t a consistent thing, but early on in the film when the two lawyers meet and start to study the case, the scene transitions are given a typewriting sound of keys clicking that establishes smoothly the hours that are being put in around the clock. The lighting is soft within the courtroom scenes, and thankfully it never overrides its authentic influence by too much technological enhancement, making it stand out as something that feels manufactured to what the movie’s production team contend for themselves.
These trio of performances involved also instill a lot of weight to the depth in this screenplay, highlighting a fresh cast of male energy that strike all for their own respective reasons. Chadwick Boseman is someone who has taken on a few of these legendary figures from our past in movies, but in Thurgood we get a possible sleeper contender for some academy recognition. Boseman might lack the visual similarities to the title character, but he more than makes up for it in his dedication to vocal tones and attitude that ring true with Marshall. Boseman is so unlimited with charm and appeal that it’s impossible not to perk up any time he enters a scene, and the chemistry with Gad might be my pick for the best one-two punch in cinema this year. On the subject of Gad, he’s rarely someone who appeals to me in films, but ‘Marshall’ proves that he has what it takes to spice to instill his brand of sarcastic wit to any film without ruining the consistency of its atmosphere. Samuel is someone who faces the kind of serious backlash from his community in ways that Marshall does as well, but with more to lose to feed into the empathy of his character. This gives Gad’s Friedman a much deserved chair at the table in this story where he rightfully belongs. Dan Stevens is also solid, playing the antagonist lawyer of sorts to combat the team of Marshall and Friedman. Stevens is menacing, deceitful, and most importantly; determined to do what he has to for the victory. This sometimes can cast him as a superhero villain of sorts with the structure of his character coming out of nowhere, but Stevens calm delivery casts great fear in the kinds of things he says that you know he believes, and it’s further proof that every good conflict needs a beneficial antagonist.
THE VERDICT – ‘Marshall’ harbors two equally compelling directions in its courtroom procedural, as well as the biopic centering around its title character that gives you two pleasures for the price of one. With a rich vibe in tone and texture, the film objects to ever being deemed under a ‘Movie of the week’ kind of classification, and the value of three electrifying performances on top of it makes the verdict of Hudland’s latest guilty of being an effective drama with lots of historical pull.