Marshall is an enjoyable enough film despite pulling a significant bait and switch.
Based on its title, viewers would be forgiven for thinking Marshall is a biopic on Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice. Marshall also isn’t focused around the defining moment of his career, the Brown v Board of Education ruling. No, this film is more a basic snapshot in a particular period in Marshall’s life that would make for an easily digestible legal adventure.
In a lot of ways, Marshall plays out like an episode of Matlock. Thurgood arrives in town, makes wise while he cracks a case and heads off to his next adventure.
In this instance, it’s 1941. Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) travels at the bequest of the NAACP to ensure a chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us) gets a fair trial after being accused of raping his employer’s wife (Kate Hudson). That seems unlikely with the harsh judge (James Cromwell) not even allowing Thurgood to speak in court. As a workaround, Thurgood needs an emissary — an Aaron to his Moses. Enter Sam Friedman (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast), a hotshot lawyer who never tried a criminal case.
It’s easy to see the lure for father and son screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff. They’re able to share the rarely told involvement and support of the Jewish community toward the NAACP’s efforts. But that comes with the consequence of keeping Marshall out of the spotlight for significant moments in the film.
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This would be like watching a movie titled Elvis with Col. Tom Ford getting half the film’s focus. While Marshall was probably the sexier, more appealing title, distributor Open Road Films probably should have gone with a more appropriate title like Marshall & Me.
The easiest comparison is Selma. Ava DuVernay’s film never set out to be a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, but she used the backdrop of that major event to shed more light on King’s life.
Despite another magnetic performance from Boseman (Message from the King), he doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to show various layers to Marshall. The script doesn’t offer insight on his confidence. A subplot featuring Marshall’s wife, Buster, (Keesha Sharp) is underdeveloped and seemingly included only for a cheap emotional moment. Another scene with Marshall hanging out with Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and Zora Neale Hurston (a blink and you miss cameo by TLC’s Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas) is tossed in with little context.
Director Reginald Hudlin navigates through these challenges to keep the nearly two-hour film moving at an agreeable pace. The producers weren’t all that bothered with casting inaccuracies — neither Boseman or Gad resemble their real life counterparts particularly well.
Hudlin smooths out a lot of the film’s rougher edges and gets great performances out of the cast, including Dan Stevens who gives an appropriately race baiting turn as prosecuting attorney Lorin Willis. Marcus Miller’s jazzy score keeps the film upbeat and lively.
Hudlin wisely doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the era and the uncomfortable words, signs and body language that annoyingly is still so familiar today.
Marshall doesn’t work as a comprehensive and enlightening biopic. It does succeed in reinforcing the notion that there can’t be any spectators in the battle for equality for all.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo Credit: Open Road Films