SDFF Review: ‘Marshall’ Makes A Good Case For Boseman And Gad
This year’s San Diego International Film Festival opened with Marshall, a biographical legal drama depicting one case early in the career of Thurgood Marshall. Handling one court case means spending only so much time with a historical figure. This has worked to become one of the preferred types of biopics, as it suggests favoring chief aspects of the character over cramming their entire life story within 2+ hours. As it stands though, Marshall’s style seems to reflect a film selling its lead as a daytime crusader fit for a small scale series. Not that the film isn’t cinematic enough, but the strong performances on display almost feel crafted to make a follow-up television show over an all-encompassing biography.
Chadwick Boseman stars as Marshall, the black lawyer who would eventually become the first Supreme Court Justice. As we see in the film, however, Marshall is spending time during the early 1940s fighting civil rights-based cases for the NAACP. The subject of this film finds Marshall heading to Connecticut to defend a man (Sterling K. Brown) accused of the rape and attempted murder of a wealthy aristocrat (Kate Hudson).
To legally provide counsel as an out-of-state attorney, Marshall teams with an insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who is known for ways of finding the small details. A real problem arises when the judge (James Crowell) allows his own biases to force Marshall to remain quiet during the actual trial, leaving it up to Friedman to speak for him.
To get this out of the way, Boseman does not look like Thurgood Marshall. That really shouldn’t matter though. In an age where lots of praise seemingly goes towards actors because the makeup artists did their job, it’s refreshing to see a film that is presenting something upfront. Boseman is a proven talent, as evidenced by his performances as Jackie Robinson and James Brown, let alone T’Challa (Black Panther), where Boseman seemed to bring instant gravitas upon appearing in Captain America: Civil War.
I note this because Boseman is terrific in this role, even as he is tasked with not being the primary voice heard in court. That could be problematic in other films, with possible accusations once again claiming Hollywood has relied on a white character to serve as a guide. However, I don’t see that as the case here, as Boseman is still featured in nearly every scene of this film and is easily the most charismatic guy on screen. If anything, the idea of Marshall being forced to use his talents while remaining quiet in the courtroom feels like a random episode of ‘Marshall Law’ (the legal drama network series I just made up). This is the case of the week, and Marshall has to find a way to succeed.
With that in mind, the utilization of Gad as a major character feels less problematic in conception but does call into question the necessity of this film as a cinematic event. Now, I’m happy to see any representation of historical POCs that made an actual difference in America, let alone the world, pushed out into theaters. I also don’t want to talk down the efforts of director Reginald Hudlin (a prolific TV director, writer, producer and the former President of BET). There is a good-looking film here thanks to some interesting choices and period-friendly cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. Still, based on this movie, I would be excited to see a series of episodes that focus on a young Marshall traveling from town to town and solving racially-charged court cases.
As it stands though, the choice has been made, and Boseman does work well with Gad. It helps that Gad’s dramatic efforts go a long way in incorporating a Jewish man with a good heart with the struggles of the black American population. There’s also the sense of humor that is brought to the film by Gad, as well as Boseman in instances. For all that Marshall is going for, there is a looseness to the movie as a whole that makes in interesting and entertaining. That may mean the moral of the story feels a bit more heavy-handed, but in a current climate where various injustices have somehow still not lessened to a majorly different degree, the lesson can again be rationalized as necessary.
This also means it is hard to call the depiction of bigotry as over-the-top. Dan Stevens, for example, portrays the prosecuting attorney Lorin Willis. He’s smug and snide throughout and given the year this film takes place and the nature of the case, it’s hard to say he’s overdoing the attitude of a figure such as that. Whether or not the film is dramatizing the details of reality to a significant degree, it is a film and not a documentary and as such, playing things a bit broad is welcome if it means seeing the main throughline. This is a story of what sort of work Marshall was doing to elevate a cause, become an influential voice for oppressed people and learn a thing or two in the process.
As a courtroom drama, Marshall is not adding much, but it works well. The case has some familiar beats to go through, but the genre is popular because of how enjoyable and intriguing it is to see a handful of actors argue back and forth. Reaction shots to testimony and objections can go a long way in building tension for an audience, and the film does plenty to make sure it puts all the proper elements of a cinematic court case on display.
I may not be getting Marshall Law anytime soon (make me an associate producer if you decide to pitch this series), but there is a fine film to be found here. It follows the logical steps of a standard courtroom procedural but is made better by Boseman and Gad’s work. There’s also the matter of seeing a film tackle the issues that defined Marshall’s legacy, which worked well by only providing a certain level of detail of the man. I’m all for an all-encompassing biopic, but this film not only holds back from portraying one of his most significant cases (Brown v. Board of Education), it relishes in making Marshall into something closer to a folk hero. Not a bad way to approach it. Sustained.