Thurgood Marshall’s prominence in American jurisprudence as a brilliant lawyer and judge — the legal mastermind behind Brown v. Board of Education, and the first black person appointed to the Supreme Court — is the kind of aura that could easily overwhelm any attempt to wrest a worthy biopic out of his life. Which is why “Marshall,” starring Chadwick Boseman and directed by Reginald Hudlin, takes a shrewd tactic more filmmakers should apply.
Hudlin focuses on one notable story in Marshall’s career — in this instance, a trial in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the winter of 1941 — and serves it up with efficient verve and prickly smarts. While not the most artful of biographical dramas, when it comes to bringing to life a young, rising attorney deploying the kind of legal acumen that would later make him a boundary-bursting giant, “Marshall” keeps its eyes on the prize.
The case dramatized in the screenplay by Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff is a little-known one, from the time Marshall was the NAACP’s top lawyer, darting around the country offering legal aid to black defendants ensnarled in clear cases of racial injustice, and risking his life in the process. This one concerned Joseph Spell (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, “This Is Us”), a black chauffeur accused by his wealthy white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) of raping her, tying her up, and hurling her over a bridge in an attempt to kill her. With ginned-up news coverage taking Spell’s guilt for granted and scaring Northeastern families into firing their black servants, the NAACP put Marshall, who had mostly been focused on incidents in the south, into action in well-heeled Connecticut.
Though convinced of Spell’s innocence — a prerequisite of Marshall’s in taking any case — he quickly finds other uphill battles. The stern judge (James Cromwell), friendly to the ambitious, sneering prosecutor (Dan Stevens) and not happy about a visiting agitator at the defense table, refuses to let Marshall speak for the duration of the trial. That puts the onus on inexperienced local defense attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to take Marshall’s pre-arranged direction when court is in session.
It’s usually a bad sign when a director’s TV muscles show, but in this case Hudlin, whose last feature was 15 years ago, brings to bear the smooth storytelling focus of his episodic years, and the small screen’s time-honored fleetness with twisty, ticking courtroom dramas. At its best, when the nagging particulars of the case create a tense rhythm of highs and lows, you could imagine “Marshall” as the punchy, pleasantly jazz-scored pilot to a deep-dive series about the great man’s legendary trial years. Who wouldn’t binge-watch that?
Boseman’s roiling magnetism goes a long way toward making it all work. His Marshall is not some winking icon-in-waiting but a workhorse for the cause. He’s a man whose immediate mission may be to bend this one jury in this one client’s favor, but it’s with an eye toward the larger pool of blinkered Americans who need a bigger truth revealed. And he’s certain his observational skills, trial tactics and faith in the fight for equal protection under the law will get the job done.
Though he has moments of vulnerability — including a private tragedy regarding his then wife Buster (Keesha Sharp, TV’s “Lethal Weapon”), and a strategic error or two in working Spell’s defense — the bass note in Boseman’s dapper performance as Marshall is a charismatic, purposeful arrogance that is often fierce and theatrical, sometimes funny, and always entertaining.
Boseman gets fine buddy-picture help from Gad, who takes what could have been a why-is-a-white-guy-sharing-a-black-hero’s-story situation and firmly grasps that he’s in the role of gradually enlightened, supportive Jewish sidekick. Brown, quickly establishing himself as an acting force, eschews sentimental victimhood for something more complicated in realizing Spell’s dilemma. And though their combined villainy in the story sometimes tips into melodrama, Stevens, Cromwell and Hudson make for admirably potent antagonists with occasional shadings.
There are eye-rolling moments: A scene in a nightclub meant to show Marshall’s real-life connections to great Harlem Renaissance figures is wince-inducingly static, marked by characters saying each other’s whole names. (“Here comes Zora Neale Hurston!” “Well, Langston Hughes.”) Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) monochromatic flashbacks to the night of the crime nudge the good-TV vibe a little too close to true-crime-TV recreations. And when the threat of violence rears its head — for both Marshall and Friedman — it’s with the all-too-predictable beat of a primetime program ready to send you into a commercial on a woe-the-hero note.
But “Marshall” is ultimately too slick to let these hiccups spoil a good time watching a genuine hero, one case at a time, do as much as anyone has ever done to make good that second “A” in NAACP. And when, at the end, Boseman shares the frame with a “Whites Only”-designated water fountain, “Marshall” has gotten you suitably jazzed to believe that the sign is the past, and the man in front of it is the future.