Chadwick Boseman excels as pillar of justice in ‘Marshall’

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 11/7/17 12:05am

On Saturday night, I trekked down to the labyrinthine nether-realm that is the Nugget Theater to see “Marshall.” Ten minutes before, I had left the Hopkins Center for the Arts’ screening of Taylor Sheridan’s problematic, complicated yet engaging “Wind River,” which played to a mostly packed theater. In contrast, I watched “Marshall” with a grand total of two other people. To everyone who could have filled those extra seats but didn’t: Y’all missed out. 

“Marshall” chronicles the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first ever African-American Justice on the Supreme Court. The strangest yet most notable feature of the film is that it does not tell the story of Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Nor is it about any of the landmark cases that he was involved in, including Brown v. Board of Education. At first glance, this seems like a terrible creative decision. In terms of advertising, a film like “Marshall” is largely sold on the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter. “First African-American Supreme Court Justice” and “Brown v. Board of Education” are the sort of recognizable historical markers around which one typically builds a conventional, crowd-pleasing biopic. “Marshall” is crowd-pleasing, to be sure, but it opts to chronicle a far more obscure case which, in reality, makes the film all the more exhilarating. This is not to say that an excellent movie could not be made out of the many other astonishing accomplishments in Marshall’s life — in fact, I hope they make those movies. But by focusing on one of his lesser known cases, this film’s screenplay is able to slip past the cinematic barriers that tend to depersonalize the majority of biopics. Director Reginald Hudlin clearly has immense respect for his subject matter, but he doesn’t hide behind the veneer of historical formality. “Marshall” is an intimate, personal and energetic film. 

In 1940, a wealthy, white woman named Eleanor Strubing accused Joseph Spell, her black chauffeur, of rape and attempted murder. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) to defend Spell. For complicated legal reasons, Marshall teams up with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a local Jewish attorney. Marshall crafted the arguments and legal tactics, but only Friedman could speak in court. 

The second most unusual feature of “Marshall” is that the titular character is not the protagonist. Admittedly, that statement is rather contingent on some of the semantics of film studies. While Marshall may be the central figure, Friedman’s growth ultimately defines the structure of the narrative. Marshall doesn’t really have a character arc in the film; he arrives on the scene exuding confidence, and he exits the film with the same unwavering determination. Friedman, on the other hand, is plagued by self-doubt and insecurity. Initially, the decisions to mediate much of Marshall’s story through Friedman’s perspective seems odd. But eventually the purpose become clear — the film isn’t just about Marshall but also about the impact he had on those around him. We spend so much time seeing the plot unfold from Friedman’s perspective simply because Friedman is transformed so strongly by Marshall’s presence. Indeed, the most touching thing about the film is the way that Friedman, almost without words, learns he, too, must confront the injustices of society, starting with the anti-Semitism that he regularly faces.

This is the first time I’ve seen Gad in a serious role, but he really gives it his all, channeling his comedic instincts into Friedman’s nervous mannerisms. Boseman is Oscar-worthy in a performance that is both commanding and kind in equal measure. In fact, he’s such a mesmerizing screen presence that I think maybe he and Hudlin should follow the footsteps of Richard Linklater’s  the “Before” Trilogy. Every decade or so they can make a new movie covering a different phase in Marshall’s career then tie it all in with the Felicity Jones-starring Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.” We could call it “The Supreme Court Cinematic Universe.” (Dear Hollywood: This is a joke. You already have like 10 cinematic universes in progress which, frankly is about nine too many. And if you do decide to use my idea, please remember that I want royalties.)

“Marshall” isn’t perfect. As I mentioned, I watched it on the same evening as I watched “Wind River,” and while I enjoyed the former far more, the latter probably gave me a little more to chew on in a thematic sense. At the end of the day, “Marshall” is basically another courtroom drama. But it’s a good courtroom drama, directed with vigor, acted with skill and written with genuine thoughtfulness. The film doesn’t just address the obvious social issues that are inherent in this story, it goes a little deeper. When Marshall first takes Spell’s case, a friend tells him that women do not accuse men of rape without reason. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say this becomes the key to understanding what happened between Spell and Strubing. When the truth is revealed, it is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film. We come to realize that everyone involved has been irrevocably shaped and damaged by an inherently unjust culture. 

That said, as we watch Marshall doggedly mock the racism surrounding him or Friedman slowly confront anti-Semitism, we are reminded that their struggles are still deeply relevant. “Marshall” may tell a story that took place well over 70 years ago, but of course we’re still fighting racists, white supremacists and anti-Semites. It’s hard to watch “Marshall” without a twinge of sadness. The story is inspiring in how it demonstrates Marshall’s impact on civil rights; at the same time, one can’t forget just how far we still have to go despite all of his efforts. Yet perhaps the film has the right idea —  it ends with Marshall immediately taking another case. For half a second, he is permitted to bathe in his victory. Then he must pick up his things and keep going. He knows what we must never forget: There’s more work to be done.