Director: Reginald Hudlin
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Roger Guenveur Smith, Barrett Doss, Zanete Shadwick, John Magaro
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 10/13/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 12, 2017
To look at the résumé of Thurgood Marshall is to see legal excellence and, in the actions and accomplishments of one man, that long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. The coda of Marshall provides us with the highlights: defending multiple people who were accused of crimes because of their race, arguing more than 30 times in front of the Supreme Court of the United States (including the nation-changing case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka), and becoming the first African-American justice of that highest judicial body in the land. Within his storied life and career, there is a bevy of possible narratives that could help us see the man, his work, and his legacy.
That makes Jacob and Michael Koskoff's screenplay particularly baffling. It's not a straightforward biography. This is one of those movies that selects a specific event, which, in theory, is a defining chapter in the subject's life and work. The case could be made that Marshall's involvement in a rape trial in Connecticut in 1941 was one of those moments in the young attorney's career. If that is the case, the movie never quite explains how or why.
Marshall, played with intelligence and charisma by Chadwick Boseman (continuing what is now a trend of the actor playing African-American men of historical and cultural impact), is barely an official player in the court case, since he is essentially gagged by the judge. His role in the trial is strategic—offering advice and, at times, a script to a green attorney, who has no experience in a criminal trial—and political—making grand pronouncements about prejudice and injustice to the gaggle of press and protestors on the front steps of the courthouse.
Within the movie, there's no doubt that Marshall's role in the case was pivotal, even defining. As for the significance of this particular case in terms of the man's career or the bigger picture of racial injustice in the U.S., though, the movie seems stymied by the prospect of providing the necessary context.
This episode of Marshall's life, then, has been transformed into a routine courtroom drama, and Marshall himself has been given what is essentially a supporting role in that story. By the end, he is the man he is at the beginning of the movie. His life story in this chapter is relatively static, save for his wife's pregnancy, as well as a minor internal conflict about whether or not he wants to continue with fights against racial injustice. The picture of Marshall is of a man who exudes confidence, possesses a brilliant mind for the law (although the movie does provide two instances of that old cliché in which another character's random advice is key to the defense strategy), and is unwavering in his goals.
This is, by all accounts, the right portrait of the man, but it's one without much drama. That belongs to the court case, in which Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a chauffeur for a well-to-do family in Greenwich, is accused of raping his employer's wife Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), before attempting to murder her by throwing her into a reservoir. The prejudice and overt racism in the headlines and stories of the local newspapers bring the case to the attention of the NAACP in New York City. Marshall is dispatched to Connecticut, where he meets Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a local Jewish attorney whose brother/law partner thought it would be a good opportunity for him.
Sam, who faces prejudice because of his religion and ethnicity, is not technically the hero here, but between him and Marshall, he is the character who possesses the more obvious and more substantial arc. This is also a strange choice on the part of the screenwriters within a movie that is ostensibly about the eponymous jurist. Sam is at a disadvantage, when the judge (played by James Cromwell) declines Sam's request to allow the out-of-state Marshall to argue for the defense. Having only worked on civil cases before this, the attorney finds himself with little knowledge, and with the public against the defendant before the trial eve begins, Sam worries that, no matter the outcome, his reputation will be sullied.
The arc, of course, is for Sam to realize the good he is doing for a greater cause, despite the consequences. Meanwhile, Marshall sits silently in the courtroom, passing notes and whispering advice to Sam, and outside the courthouse, he gives speeches, investigates what really happened, and thinks through a strategy for the defense. Simply by means of action and character evolution, our sympathies reflexively move toward Sam, while we're left wondering how anyone thought it was a good idea to make the central character so passive in regards to the story.
This could have been Marshall's story, but for that to happen, the movie would have to acknowledge the climate. The story occurs in the North, but within the context of the movie, it feels like isolated incident, not a reflection of the reality—that racism and prejudice are not exclusively geographic phenomena. Marshall is uncertain of its purpose, though, providing little insight into the man or the harsh truths behind his cause.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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