An early case in the career of pioneering NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall makes Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall worth seeing even if the courtroom theatrics and the drama therein never reaches explosive or truly memorable heights.
The Production: 3.5/5
An early case in the career of pioneering NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall makes Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall worth seeing even if the courtroom theatrics and the drama therein never reaches explosive or truly memorable heights. The hotbed case is interesting enough, and the performances are very good as is the period depiction of the events, but there’s nothing powerfully urgent in the direction and tone of the story, and the movie emerges as an entertaining endeavor but not a remarkable one.
As the NAACP’s itinerant lawyer travelling the country to defend black men who have been wrongly imprisoned, Thurgood Marshall’s (Chadwick Boseman) latest case brings him to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where society woman Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) claims she was raped and tossed off a bridge to silence her by her chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) while her husband (Jeremy Bobb) was out of town. Since Marshall is not a member of the Connecticut bar, Spell’s defense is handled in court by local insurance attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) who has no experience in trying criminal cases. With Marshall’s vaster experience, the two attorneys’ uneasy working relationship still manages to make headway in the case, but parties on all sides are lying, and ferreting out the truth proves to be more difficult amid the tumult of racial and anti-Semitic prejudices that the case stirs up.
The screenplay by Michael and Jacob Koskoff is based on an actual case in Thurgood Marshall’s past, but the vicious, actively rabid racist crowds outside the 1941 courtroom seem more in line with reactions in the more demonstrative 1960s and 1970s (though it’s somewhat refreshing, though not in the good way, to see such undisguised racism occurring in some place other than the Deep South as generally portrayed in the movies). Also, since the trial judge (James Cromwell) forbids Marshall from any speaking, questioning witnesses, or objecting to testimony since he is not a member of the Connecticut bar, the majority of the courtroom theatrics are taken by Josh Gad’s Friedman and prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens at his snootiest). Reginald Hudlin’s direction is pretty much by-the-numbers as prosecution witnesses provide damning evidence against the accused (the old-fashioned wipes as segues between scenes fit the time period of the story), and then the two principal parties each recount their own versions of events which are then pictured on-screen. Away from the courtroom, there are counterpoint scenes of both Marshall and Friedman enduring racist bullying (Friedman comes out much the worse for wear in his encounter) and one superfluous early sequence with Marshall and his pregnant wife Buster (Keesha Sharp) enjoying a night out at a club with poet/playwright Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and his latest male paramour though the purpose of that scene never comes into clear focus. While the two lawyers eventually come to have a grudging respect for one another, the pecking order is decidedly in Marshall’s favor as Friedman continuously defers to his more experienced and verbally astute colleague.
Having already filmed biographical portraits of Jackie Robinson and James Brown, Chadwick Boseman now takes on Thurgood Marshall with generally excellent results. His confidence and stature seem already firmly in place even in his early 30s, and there never seems to be a shred of doubt about his course of action or his means of achieving the truth. Perhaps a few shadings of hesitation, a moment or two of desperation or confusion might have provided a more varied portrait of this great man. Instead, Josh Gad’s Sam Friedman carries the doubts and insecurities for the both of them in a performance that balances his uncertainty in an alien courtroom environment and his struggles to maintain a dignified survival for his local law practice when anger and mistrust surround him on all sides. Kate Hudson gets the very juicy role of Eleanor Strubing, and the multiple renditions of the night in question allow the actress a wide range of emotions as either the possible victim or then again the instigator of the transpired events. As the accused, Sterling K. Brown does what he can to hide his innate intelligence behind Joseph Spell’s less worldly and decidedly lower class demeanor, but he isn’t always successful. Dan Stevens is fine as a smug, privileged prosecutor, and James Cromwell sits imperiously lordly in his judge’s seat. Keesha Sharp as Marshall’s wife, Ahna O’Reilly as the assured forewoman of the jury, and John Magaro as Sam’s brother Irwin also turn in entertaining performances.
3D Rating: NA
The image has been framed at 2:1 and is presented in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Sharpness is very good throughout, even in the scenes where a milky contrast lessens black levels a bit and reduces image effectiveness. Color saturation levels are spot-on, and skin tones are realistic throughout. The movie has been divided into 20 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix offers good fidelity, but the atmospheric ambiance in the surrounds is not particularly enveloping, a bit disappointing given the amount of angry demonstrations on the city streets going into and out of the courtroom. Dialogue has been nicely recorded and has been placed in the center channel. Nightclub song numbers along with the background score constitute the clearest surround elements in the mix.
Special Features: 1/5
Promo Trailers (HD): Thank You for Your Service, American Made, Brad’s Status.
DVD/Digital Copy: disc and code sheet enclosed in the case.
Marshall offers only a glimpse into the psyche of eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at an early point in his career, but the case he’s involved with in this courtroom drama is an intriguing enough trial to warrant some attention. A rental might be the smarter play with this title given the obvious lack of any bonus materials though fans of the stars may feel quite differently.