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Movie Review: ‘Marshall’ is an Electric Portrait of the Supreme Court Justice as a Young NAACP Defense Lawyer

CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Open Road Films

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, James Cromwell, Dan Stevens, Ahna O’Reilly

Director: Reginald Hudlin

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Dangers of Being And/Or Defending a Black Man in Mid-Century America

Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Moderate)

I almost feel like it iss my Professional Critical Duty to take Marshall to task for its most straightforward biopic tendencies. In that vein, while Marcus Miller’s jazzy score that just won’t quit is agreeably toe-tapping, it does indeed make it consistently clear when you are supposed to feel angry, or concerned, or shocked, or stirred to pride. But I can live with one element being on the nose, especially if it is enjoyable in and of itself. Besides, Marshall mostly sidesteps biopic clichés (save for one silly moment of epiphany). It only just superficially feels cliché because justice prevails so rousingly. But it deserves to prevail because its subject is kind of one of the best lawyers in American history.

Reginald Hudlin’s film wisely opts for the surest path to biopic success, i.e., focusing on one chapter in the subject’s life. In 1940, more than two decades before he ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court, and twelve years before he argued before that same court in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a lawyer working for the NAACP, whose mission was to represent wrongfully accused African Americans across the country. One of those wrongfully accused was Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, cast both for and against his type of commonly decent men), a driver for a wealthy Connecticut family on trial for raping the woman he works for (Kate Hudson). Marshall’s co-counsel is insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), but since Sam is the only one certified to practice law in the state, only he and not Thurgood can speak during the trial, thanks to the ruling of a possibly racist or perhaps just frustratingly strict judge (James Cromwell).

Marshall is not out to score liberal brownie points, though it could easily settle for that. What it is more interested in, and what makes it so valuable, is examining why systems and social norms exist, and exploiting them for the best possible solution. A man like Joseph can find himself unfairly fighting for his life not just because he is black, but also because he is not entirely innocent. He has been guilty of unfaithfulness, petty theft, and absentee parenting. None of this makes him a rapist, but it is the conflation of all crimes that has been used and continues to be used as faux justification for the endurance of institutional racism. Marshall the film, and Marshall the man, say that yes, there is racism here, but there’s more to it than that. When it comes down to it, judge, jury, and opposing counsel are all people, and they can be appealed to if you know how to wield the truth properly and effectively, and are willing to take a few shots from those who aren’t ready yet.

Marshall is Recommended If You Like: To Kill a Mockingbird, Conviction, Selma, 42

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Pebbles

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