(2017—Director: Reginald Hudlin)
(out of 5 stars)
“The only way to get through a bigot’s door is to break it down.” — Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) to Sam Friedman (Josh Gad)
Potential spoilers below
From Anatomy of a Murder (1959) to FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016), from Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) to A Few Good Men (1992), and from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to Bridge of Spies (2015), the courtroom drama has established a lasting narrative effectiveness across several decades. It enhances biographical dramas like The Social Network (2010), facilitates an amusing clash of cultures in the underrated comedy My Cousin Vinny (1992), and serves as the culminating setpiece in many a crime series. To say, then, that Marshall, the latest directorial effort from longtime producer Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Django Unchained, the 88th Academy Awards), does not reach the heights of these aforementioned works risks downplaying its undeniable watchability, strong acting, and admirable focus on a less-examined monument in pre-Civil Rights Movement America.
It is 1941. Twenty-six years before his historic appointment to the United States Supreme Court, young Thurgood Marshall (the ever-composed Chadwick Boseman, 42, Captain America: Civil War) was working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its sole attorney. His newest assignment calls him to Connecticut, where affluent socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous, Deepwater Horizon) accuses her African American chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) of sexual assault and attempted murder. He soon teams up with Jewish insurance lawyer and criminal law novice Sam Friedman (an astonishing Josh Gad, Frozen). To win their case, they must face a hard-nosed judge (James Cromwell, Babe, FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum), a well-respected prosecutor (2017 acting MVP Dan Stevens, Beauty & the Beast), and the surrounding racist and anti-Semitic community who believe that Spell is guilty.
From the outset, Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad make Marshall pop to unexpected heights. David Oyelowo may have beaten him to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2014’s Selma, but Chadwick Boseman seems to have otherwise cornered the market on playing every other male figure in African American history. Whether he is Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in Get on Up (2014), or King T’Challa/Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Boseman’s rock-steady acting chops continue to amaze his viewers. His young Thurgood Marshall is no different, coming off like a brilliant mix of MLK bravado with the legal prowess and measured demeanor of Atticus Finch. (Appropriate, since the main court case in Marshall holds several similarities to the one in To Kill a Mockingbird.) Boseman, however, does not dominate Marshall. When James Cromwell’s judge coldly restricts the out-of-state Marshall to nonverbal defense council, the story thrusts the actual courtroom drama into the hands of Josh Gad’s Sam Friedman. Typecast as the lovable doofus after voicing Olaf the Snowman in Disney’s inescapable 2013 musical Frozen, Gad’s performance as Friedman is an unexpected dramatic triumph that even gives Boseman’s presence a run for its money. Boseman and Gad co-lead Marshall with exciting chemistry and gusto.
So sturdy is Marshall’s acting might that it would be harsh to single out even one supporting performance as embarrassing. Dan Stevens adds his charming, smug, and racist prosecutor to his list of 2017 turns that already includes Beauty & the Beast, Norman, and Colossal, taking the title of “Most Valuable Actor of 2017” with ease. Sterling K. Brown conveys his supposed rapist and Kate Hudson her supposed rape victim with fair depth in both the witness stand and the many conflicting flashback scenes. Only veteran character actor James Cromwell has what may seem like the film’s most thankless role. Yet Cromwell’s early peak and key lines of dialogue here and there during the later legal proceedings do more than just remind audiences of his esteemed presence.
Behind the camera with director Hudlin is the tag team of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive, films by director Bryan Singer) and editor Tom McArdle (films by director Tom McCarthy, including his Oscar-nominated work on Spotlight). Sigel desaturates the color in the flashback scenes, but he also shoots too close to the action sometimes, reluctant to show the full glory of Marshall’s period aesthetics. Countering this are the delightful instances in the courtroom scenes when McArdle resists cutting and allows Sigel to whip-pan between attorney and witness.
To be sure, Reginald Hudlin’s film does not redefine its subgenre, much less cinema as a whole. It is not the To Kill a Mockingbird of our times and it is unlikely to enter the Oscar conversation, even in a year as weak as 2017. Still, any fan of entertaining and reliable two-hour courtroom dramas would do well to add Marshall to their watchlists. Marshall is comfort cinema at its best and such works only help make a year in film more worthwhile.
(Parental Note: Marshall has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence, and some strong language.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “references to sexual violence” and a “racial theme”.)