D: Reginald Hudlin / 118m
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Roger Guenveur Smith, Derrick Baskin, Barrett Doss, Marina Squerciati, John Magaro, Ahna O’Reilly, Jeffrey DeMunn
Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) was a lawyer who worked across the US for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) during the Thirties and Forties. During his time with the NAACP he tried cases in front of the US Supreme Court, and won twenty-nine out of thirty-two of them. His most famous case was Brown v Board of Education, Topeka in 1954, in which the the educational segregation of whites and blacks was deemed unconstitutional. It was a landmark case, and a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement. But instead of telling that story, the makers of Marshall have opted to tell the story of The State of Connecticut v Joseph Spell, a lurid rape case that occurred in 1940. The movie, capably directed by Reginald Hudlin from a screenplay by father and son team Michael and Jakob Koskoff, also makes the decision to change things around so that Marshall himself is the focus and not the original trial lawyer, Sam Friedman (Gad). Does this really matter in a movie that’s based on a true story? Let’s answer that with another question: what’s wrong with the true story by itself?
The differences between what actually happened and what occurs in the movie are many (as you might expect), but one aspect that leaves a bitter after taste is the treatment of Sam Friedman. Here he’s Marshall’s flunky, criticised repeatedly, and treated in such a poor way for so long that bullying becomes the only word for it. In a role reversal that would be outrageous if it weren’t so credulous, Marshall treats Friedman as if their racial positions were reversed: Marshall is the master and Friedman is the slave. Friedman was a more than capable lawyer who in 1940 had more trial experience than Marshall, and who was hired by the NAACP to defend Joseph Spell (Brown). Marshall was sent as a consultant, and the legal liberties the movie takes to reduce his presence in court while at the same time making him look like a puppet master pulling Friedman’s strings, is objectionable. While it’s good to see an educated, strong, confident, and positive example of a black man on our screens, did it really have to be at the expense of the white man who actually did all the heavy lifting?
Things aren’t helped by the predictable plotting, and the stereotypical characters, from Stevens’ arrogant prosecution lawyer to Cromwell’s obstructionist, authoritarian judge. The trial scenes have a certain amount of energy to them, as do the flashbacks to the night of the rape (Spell was a chauffeur who was accused by his employer’s wife, Eleanor Strubing (Hudson), of rape and attempted murder), but away from the courtroom, much of the movie is perfunctory, and the visuals are quite drab. It’s also a movie that recounts the more tawdry aspects of the alleged rape with a degree of detachment, and what should be shocking sounds more as if it were unrelated to anyone who’s actually involved in it all. As Marshall, Boseman adds another real-life person to his resumé, and invests the character with a lot of passion and vigour, but as the movie finally gets round to giving Friedman his due, Marshall becomes a secondary character and his impact diminishes. Gad handles the enforced comic aspects of his character with his usual amiable skill, but doesn’t always look comfortable doing so. Hudson brings a degree of ambiguity to her role as Eleanor, and Brown is a solid, dependable presence throughout. In dramatic terms, the verdict is a given, and it’s a mark of the movie’s lacklustre approach, that when that verdict is announced, the response from the viewer is likely to be “Okay” instead of Oh my God!”
Rating: 6/10 – patchy and hesitant in parts, Marshall beefs up its main character’s involvement in a rape trial and spends much of its time reminding the viewer that Thurgood Marshall was a better man than anyone else depicted in the movie; a hagiography then – though not the first – and one that, by adopting such an approach, reinforces that old newspaper saying, “If you can’t print the truth, print the legend”.