Marshall Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Dan Stevens. Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
Although its title would seem to indicate that Marshall is a story about Thurgood Marshall, a pioneering civil rights activist who became the first black Supreme Court justice, Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) is actually one of two primary characters in the movie, which focuses almost entirely on a court case early in Marshall’s career as a lawyer for the NAACP. In 1941, the organization dispatches Marshall to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to help defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur accused of raping his wealthy white employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).
Thanks to the intractability of the local judge, Marshall—certified only to practice law in Maryland—is forced to team up with local lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a meek small-timer with previous trial experience only in insurance cases. The movie is as much about Friedman’s awakening to the civil rights struggles of African-Americans as it is about Marshall’s strategies for winning the case or the NAACP’s larger mission. The screenplay by father-son team Michael and Jacob Koskoff started out as a drama strictly about the case, and some of the scenes featuring Marshall’s personal life (including his difficulties conceiving a child with his wife, and especially a painfully awkward name-dropping scene with historical figures Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston) feel tacked-on and obligatory.
The courtroom drama, however, is pretty entertaining, even if it’s completely predictable and often played very broadly, especially by Dan Stevens as the racist, classist prosecutor so sinister he might as well be twirling his mustache. Boseman, who’s become a bit of a biopic expert after playing Jackie Robinson (in 42) and James Brown (in Get on Up), brings the right amount of vulnerability to Marshall, who could come across as a set of history-textbook bullet points, and Gad steals nearly every scene he’s in as the neurotic Friedman, who discovers reserves of inner strength he never knew he had.
Some might see it as a cop-out that one of the most notable black Americans in history has to share his biopic with a white guy, but the Koskoffs and director Reginald Hudlin make sure to connect the plight of Jewish immigrant Friedman to the NAACP’s ongoing efforts, with the looming threat of Nazi Germany often in the background. In its less effective moments, Marshall becomes a connect-the-dots history lesson, and the direction from TV veteran Hudlin has the look of an old-fashioned movie of the week, complete with transitional wipes. The entire arc of Marshall’s life probably deserves a lengthier and more sophisticated treatment, but this minor episode still makes for an appealing primer.