Marshall review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Marshall makes a rather risky call of injecting some style into its historical biopic of the landmark case of State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, an early case for lawyer Thurgood Marshall before he became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. And yet it pays off rather well, bringing the engaging atmosphere of the 1940s era with cracking the case of Joseph Spell being accused of rape and assault of a white woman. Such an approach is a gamble as its noir-ish nature could overshadow the grander aspects of the case and its place in history but it only serves as a little extra boost for a very important story.
Chadwick Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall with real power but also a very human nature that can easily go from being the stern voice of the court to a tearful mess over the phone. Strolling fearlessly through the judgemental North America with his long coat and fedora, he has the look and keen nature of a detective if he chose to be, especially when considering his ability to hold his own in a bar fight. After all, when you’re defending African American in the courtroom during a time of lynchings, you’ve got to be able to hold your own against racist rednecks.
Not so keen to do the fighting outside the courtroom is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance lawyer working alongside Thurgood in the Connecticut case. He’s never served as co-counsel for a criminal case and is in for a vicious wake-up call when it comes to defending a black man. As Marshall travels from place to place as an African-American defender, he’s used to the struggle. Friedman doesn’t have that luxury, working locally and having a family that is put at risk by the prejudiced. But the more they continue, the more Friedman realizes this case is a much bigger ordeal and worth the fight, even if he can’t defend himself as aggressively as Marshall.
Director Reginald Hudlin makes the smart call by keeping this story equal parts a hard-focused legal drama laced thickly with the teamwork of Marshall and Friedman. We really get a sense of how the two lawyers came together but more from the context of the case than their character. Few scenes feature them just shooting the breeze with overused dialogue about how they’re not so different after all. Anyone with eyes can see the relation and their conversations remain almost entirely focused on the case, where their real smarts and personalities comes out for the defense. One of the few moments of relaxing connection finds them sharing a drink in the office, cut short by their families and courtroom case taking more importance.
Though given a more theatrical take on the courtroom drama for the sake of drama, Marshall thankfully avoids being cartoonish in its depiction. Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), the defendant, has just the right amount of desperation and fear in his voice that never tries to go for the Oscar bait money shot of tears and screams. Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) as the prosecuting white women also carries a similar sense of discomfort more the implications of herself being a lonely white elite who let her desires overrule and her class cloud her judgment. James Cromwell plays the judge with a decent dose of the disapproving white judge who requires much convincing in his no-nonsense courtroom.
Marshall deserves a lot of credit for making a courtroom case, even one as important and inspiring as the trial of Joseph Spell, a really intriguing and engaging picture without contorting too much. It’s exciting to see Marshall strut his legal perspective in court as it is to watch him outsmart and out-punch his opposition picking fights on the streets. Friedman also has a real charm, especially for being performed by a rather understated Gad from usual maniacal screaming. The film itself ramps up to Marshall’s future in law with a real thrill that a sequel wouldn’t be the least bit inappropriate.