Never underestimate the power of a courtroom drama: the ringing questions, the preening lawyers, the dramatic pauses, the clicking of puzzle pieces fitting together, the ultimate belief in justice for all. It’s a genre that’s sadly gone out of fashion, but when it works – as it does with Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall” – it can be enormously satisfying.
Starring Chadwick Boseman as legendary civil-rights attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Marshall” is no biopic, but instead focuses entirely on one true-life case: the 1941 State of Connecticut vs. Joseph Spell case, in which a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) was charged with raping his wealthy white employer (Kate Hudson). Marshall, then a young attorney for the NAACP who worked mostly in the South, was sent to Greenwich, Connecticut, to defend Spell, in tandem with local attorney Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad).
As with all good courtroom dramas, the case is infinitely more complicated than it appears to be, and it’s a pleasure to watch Boseman and Gad smoothing out its tangles – and, along the way, becoming respectful colleagues and friends. Boseman plays Marshall as a relaxed, confident young man comfortable with the theatricalities of being a trial attorney (he always seems to have a hand casually resting in his pocket, projecting a learned breeziness). Gad, an inexperienced trial lawyer who’s uncomfortably aware that he’s in over his head, shows us Friedman’s slow warming to the case, and to the injustice behind it – and his realization that, as a Jew, he has more in common than he initially realized with this visitor to the North. (The two men find connection, at one point, when they both quote the same Old Testament verse.)
Shot in dusty light, with the courtroom lawyers’ suits made patterned by the slant of shadows from the window blinds, “Marshall” is a handsome, old-fashioned film about a real-life hero, with a message of equality and justice that always bears repeating.
By its end, as the jury prepares to present its final verdict, Marshall has already moved on: to another case; another town; another chance to let truth prevail, one courtroom at a time.
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