Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall is a stylish biopic about a specific slice in late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s law career.
The jazzy courtroom drama follows the case of The State of Connecticut versus Joseph Spell. The all-star cast includes Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, and Dan Stevens. These actors hail from typical box office crowd pleasers–you might remember Boseman as the Black Panther from the Marvel films and Kate Hudson from the heyday of 2000s romantic comedy hits. These actors bring a certain energetic flair to an otherwise somber topic. The film follows Thurgood Marshall’s defense of a black man named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) accused of the sexual assault and attempted murder of a white socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Then an NAACP lawyer, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was summoned to help Spell. He enlists the help of Jewish lawyer Sam Freedman (Josh Gad). The judge refuses to let Marshall speak in court, so Freedman, who has never been on a criminal trial before, must speak.
Given the subject matter, I expected a lot of gravitas from the movie. But the film pleasantly reminded me of a superhero movie, balancing wry humor with deep insight on complex issues of race. Boseman carries himself with a lot of swagger and poise in contrast with Gad, who portrays a bumbling fellow with a heart of gold. The film takes a modern twist, positioning Boseman in a cool, macho role often occupied by white men. Although Gad must, under court orders, speak for the defendant, he by no means renders Boseman a magical black character. The film makes it resoundingly clear who calls all the shots.
And just a quick shout out to Sterling K. Brown, who I adore in The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story and This Is Us. Brown is such a versatile actor, playing everything from righteous lawyer Christopher Darden to a kind-of-neurotic-but-lovable father in This is Us. Out of all the characters, Joseph Spell is the most nuanced character. He’s made mistakes, but he’s not quite bad. There’s a particular moment in the film when the prosecuting lawyer why he lied on the stand. Spell gives a sobering, powerful speech about how the truth gets you killed when you are a black man.
In addition to its strong cast, this movie is simply gorgeously shot. It’s snappy, even eccentric, alternating between angular close-ups and quirky wide shots. It’s artful, without being ostentatious. It’s inviting and animating, a much different feel than quiet, slow slice-of-life biopics.
My one criticism of the film: It was a little long, running around two hours. I appreciated the literary references, like when Marshall compared the Joseph Spell case to Native Son. But there were moments that felt a little superfluous to the plot, like when Marshall chitchatted with Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes at a club (and they were never mentioned again).
With that criticism aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It follows a superhero narrative, so its painting of good and evil are not fully nuanced. Marshall twists the macho lone wolf hero genre and gives it soul. It commemorates a dignified man’s life in a way that rightfully glorifies his legacy but also shows how his heroic efforts are not solely by or for himself.