by Joe Hammerschmidt
The timing by which venerable producer/director Reginald Hudlin (House Party) drops his latest effort is rather unfortunate. With the Harvey Weinstein allegations still building an opinion on the general consensus, viewing a film mirroring real-life subject matter and social morays being scrutinized in a courtroom setting may be in poor taste. Still, it is highly necessary to remember the heroes, the crusaders who can fight for the innocent, not so much those who were too quick to admit their wrongdoing. Thurgood Marshall was one of those crusaders, a civil rights rep for the NAACP in the 40s, later a powerful defense attorney and Supreme Court justice. Chadwick Boseman, once again in his stalwart leading man visage, makes this a film worth seeing, for both entertainment and educational reasons. And of course, it’s another captivating true-life hero tale which should give all involved plenty of deserved hardware.
Set in the early 40s, as most Americans are in the tight grip of WWII, Marshall (Boseman) is traveling across America, taking on varied civil and criminal cases for African-Americans who had been wrongfully accused. His latest client: Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a Connecticut chauffeur facing rape charges towards his boss’s wife, socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Unfortunately, the town of Bridgeport is still divided towards racial equality; the judge presiding over the case (James Cromwell) won’t allow him once to speak his own opinion during the trial. Assisting Marshall, sheepish business lawyer Sam Friedman, unable to cope with the attention the trial would bring on both sides.
The off-the-wall friendship forged between Marshall and Friedman, therefore, is the film’s pivotal bread-and-butter. Their duality is quirky yet still dramatic, without the desire to turn to gimmicky with the latter. Bear in mind Marshall is not specifically a “buddy picture”; the two barely see eye to eye, though they manage to get the job done. Both Boseman and Gad are champions when paired together, though Hudlin really hones their strengths when on their own. Marshall has his wife, struggling to get pregnant; Friedman, his career, and his standing in the community. Friedman is the outlier of this scenario, and Gad’s performance manages to bring the character out into the open, creating what may be his finest role to date, exposing wide range, and breaking him free of that typecast drift which had kept him from owning real dramatic parts.
Meanwhile, Boseman is once again in his acting element as the unqualified leading man who pulls off a victory just by his own intuition. As Thurgood feels his moral compass tested, Boseman is challenged to rise against what is most oppressing him. The established actor who first wowed in 2014’s Get on Up remains steady as a rock, yet willing to grow in conveying a more adult role. The equation is complete through Brown and Hudson, as former employer/employee who went too far and approached a fate far greater than their pay grade. Brown is a stable utility performer, using mostly the intensity in his voice to express his character’s emotional fear, his own deception. Hudson may’ve played it too safe, though; the trial allows for Eleanor’s side of the story to be told, creatively enough; yet it can’t outweigh Joseph’s explanations.
Truth in an overwhelming glare of racism, and in the heaviness of the Jim Crow era, does win out, at least here, where there’s plenty of fun to be had, without entirely sugarcoating all over. Gad’s the funny one, Boseman the serious guy who could use a sense of humor. They are the right counteract for what Marshall strives for at the end of the day: a legal drama that feels truly human, yet glosses over the grittiness. Most accomplish those marks easily, yet Hudlin’s attempts make it a little more special to the viewer, despite cheapening the emotional effects a little.
It’s impossible to feel just a little sorrow during the testimonies, a little gut-wrenched in deciding who to believe. They barely contribute to the tension, simultaneously. It’s not enough to completely derail the journey, with Boseman still victorious as a leading man with more great opportunities ahead, but it’s just enough to lack the film its conviction, yet not its spirit. (B-)
Marshall opens this weekend at most area theaters; rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language; 118 minutes.