Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall” is, simply, an important film as well as an entertaining one.
Its subject, Thurgood Marshall, became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice, yet “Marshall” focuses entirely on an early event in his career, a crucial 1940s case.
We can count on one hand the number of biopics about great African-Americans directed by African-Americans, Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and Ava Duvernay’s “Selma” included.
Hudlin, with Lee, was part of an amazing movement of African-American filmmakers in the early 1990s; he made his debut with the comedy “House Party,” and followed with an attempt at a more mature Eddie Murphy comedy, “Boomerang.”
His career petered out with critically-panned flops like “The Ladies Man” and “Serving Sara.” He has worked steadily in television and now returns to the big screen with plenty to prove.
He did not throw away his shot.
In “Marshall,” Chadwick Boseman plays the title character, and it’s a great choice, despite the fact that he appeared in other recent biopics. His Thurgood is more human than the heroic Jackie Robinson in “42” and more interesting than the arrogant James Brown in “Get On Up.”
Working as a trial lawyer for the NAACP, Marshall is sent to Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black man working as a chauffeur and accused of raping his employer, a white woman, Eleanor Sturbing (Kate Hudson).
Marshall enlists the aid of local Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who has only handled insurance claims and no criminal cases.
If they lose, it could mean the end of the NAACP.
Gad and Boseman are both excellent, and they form a believable bond. Friedman never becomes the default lead to soothe white audiences, but neither is he background wallpaper; he has his own struggles.
Meanwhile, Marshall is allowed to be doubtful, exhausted and flawed. When a white judge (James Cromwell) orders that he not be allowed to speak during the trial, his sense of impotence and outrage comes through in a universal way.
Additionally, Brown’s character is surprisingly rounded, and the recent Emmy-winner is terrific in the role. Even a galvanized American classic like “To Kill a Mockingbird” couldn’t manage a three-dimensional portrait of the black man on trial; in that film, he’s not much more than a symbol.
Like “Mockingbird,” “Marshall” is not flashy or artsy, but it has a crisp, workmanlike flow. It stays in the moment, very simply concentrating on balanced, organic, effective storytelling. There is no pandering or patronizing.
Many biopics make the mistake of dropping in moments of enlightenment, pointing towards the character’s bright future, as if the origin of a man’s life can happen in one magical instant.
“Marshall” is not concerned with this; it provides a few factoids during the closing credits, but otherwise, it’s structured not unlike John Ford’s masterpiece “Young Mr. Lincoln.” It’s a courtroom drama, a pure entertainment, wherein nothing more than behavior and character provide the seeds of greatness.
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson
Written by Michael Koskoff, Jacob Koskoff
Directed by Reginald Hudlin
Running time 1 hour, 58 minutes