‘Marshall’ makes for en­gag­ing le­gal drama

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Magazine - By Alan Zilberman

In the fact-based drama “Marshall” — a throw­back to such court­room-fo­cused pro­ce­du­rals as “Wit­ness for the Pros­e­cu­tion” and “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” — Thur­good Marshall is seen as some­thing of a le­gal su­per­hero.

The late Supreme Court jus­tice cuts a strik­ing fig­ure as he pre­pares to don his ju­di­cial robes be­fore the film flashes back to the early 1940s, when, as a young at­tor­ney for the NAACP, he brought to the job an un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to jus­tice (and a will­ing­ness to get into bar brawls).

This over­sim­pli­fied ren­der­ing, how­ever, is com­pli­cated by the fact that the film is set in the Jim Crow era and cen­ters on the case of a black man who has been ac­cused of rap­ing a white wo­man. Di­rec­tor Regi­nald Hudlin han­dles the story with just enough fi­nesse to make its de­tails more thrilling than un­easy.

Chad­wick Bose­man plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter, a con­fi­dent young at­tor­ney who heads wher­ever the NAACP sends him. When a black chauf­feur, Joseph Spell (Ster­ling K. Brown), is ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault by his em­ployer’s wife, Con­necti­cut so­cialite Eleanor Strub­ing (Kate Hud­son), Marshall’s boss (Roger Guen­veur Smith) as­signs him to Spell’s de­fense.

But be­fore the trial can even be­gin, there is a mi­nor pro­ce­dural de­lay: Be­cause Marshall is not li­censed to prac­tice in Con­necti­cut, an­other at­tor­ney (Josh Gad) must vouch for him. Mr. Gad’s Sam Fried­man is drafted for the hear­ing by a judge (James Cromwell), who ar­rives at an odd de­ci­sion: The ac­cused will be de­fended by Fried­man, not Marshall, who although he may act as co-coun­sel, is not al­lowed to speak in court.

There are two con­cur­rent sto­ries that play out here, in­form­ing each other in ways both di­rect and sub­tle. The first in­volves the case it­self, with Spell declar­ing his in­no­cence and his lawyers pre­par­ing his de­fense. The sec­ond con­cerns the re­la­tion­ship between Spell’s two at­tor­neys, each of whom re­sents the other and yet must work as part of a team. Mr. Hudlin takes the nat­u­ral chem­istry between Mr. Bose­man and Mr. Gad — or the ut­ter lack of it — and makes that work in the film’s fa­vor. Although the two men even­tu­ally ar­rive at a cer­tain rap­port — made plau­si­ble by the per­form­ers’ un­forced act­ing styles — their even­tual ca­ma­raderie still re­tains the awk­ward­ness you would ex­pect between a black man and a Jew forced to work to­gether in lily-white Con­necti­cut.

Their fight to prove Spell’s in­no­cence en­tails some foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but pri­mar­ily re­lies on tes­ti­mony, which Mr. Hudlin sup­ple­ments with flash­backs that have been drained of color, cre­at­ing a noirish aes­thetic that deep­ens the lurid as­pects of the case — a classic he said/she said sce­nario that puts Fried­man in the awk­ward po­si­tion of im­pugn­ing Strub­ing’s in­tegrity on the stand. That’s a tough nee­dle to thread, as it risks col­or­ing Strub­ing as a vic­tim and Fried­man as cruel.

To its credit, the script (co-

writ­ten by Ja­cob Koskoff and his fa­ther, lawyer Michael Koskoff) finds a so­lu­tion to this prob­lem through a mo­rally com­plex se­ries of events that in­volves two peo­ple wor­ried about sav­ing face. The scenes with Spell and Strub­ing, on the wit­ness stand, are the best in the film.

“Marshall” in­cludes too many per­func­tory bio­graph­i­cal scenes that dis­tract from, rather than add to, the tale. Sub­plots about Marshall’s re­la­tion­ship with writer Langston Hughes (Jussie Smol­lett) and his mar­riage — which helps in­form Marshall’s le­gal strat­egy — of­fer lit­tle more than his­tor­i­cal foot­notes.

Other char­ac­ters are un­der­de­vel­oped, in­clud­ing the pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney, played as a churl­ish, smarmy bigot by Dan Stevens, who does what he can in a thank­less role. For the most part, though, the cast of char­ac­ters is com­plex and chal­leng­ing.

De­spite sim­plis­tic mo­ments and need­less di­gres­sions, “Marshall” still makes for an en­gag­ing le­gal drama that largely avoids giv­ing its sub­ject the Great Man treat­ment. Mr. Bose­man plays Marshall as both cocky and smart but with no inkling of the giant he would be­come.

Many of us know about Thur­good Marshall be­cause of the land­mark case strik­ing down school seg­re­ga­tion, Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, which he ar­gued be­fore the Supreme Court. By avoid­ing his most fa­mous case, while at the same time pre­serv­ing his­tory — and adding pulpy thrills — “Marshall” is more in­volv­ing than any text­book or doc­u­men­tary could be.

Josh Gad, Chad­wick Bose­man and Ster­ling K. Brown in “Marshall.”

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