The making of Marshall
A glimpse of the early career of a civil-rights icon
We tend to think of icons as springing forth fully formed, but that’s not the case.
They’re made, not born, and the story behind their making is important if we are to understand the full import of their lives.
It’s easy to think of Thurgood Marshall, victor in the seminal Brown v. the Board of Education and the first black man to serve as a Supreme Court justice, as an icon. He sat as an associate justice for 24 years, an integral member of the Court. It seemed as if he’d always been there.
But he wasn’t born there. Reginald
Hudlin’s “Marshall“shows us, in part, how he got there. It’s not a traditional, cover-all-the-bases biopic. Instead, the film focuses on a single case.
In 1941 the NAACP dispatches Mar-
shall, played by Chadwick Boseman, to Bridgeport, Conn., to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), accused of raping wealthy Eleanor Sturbing (Kate Hudson). Here, one supposes, Marshall won’t find the overt racism of the deep south, where he’s been been defending clients.
And it’s true — in Bridgeport the racism is more covert, and insidious. Marshall isn’t a member of the Connecticut bar, so the presiding judge (James Cromwell, outstanding) decrees that, while he can be part of the defense team, Marshall cannot speak. He’ll need to find a lead counsel, and he winds up with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad). The good news is Friedman reluctantly agrees, after much coercion from Marshall, to take the case. The bad news is Friedman has never tried a criminal case, just insurance and accidents.
Thus an unlikely team is formed, and as with all of Marshall’s cases, it must oppose both the prosecutor (Dan Stevens, contempt leaking out of his ears, practically) and inherent racism.
But Marshall isn’t just brilliant. He’s also savvy. Friedman stumbles around at first, out of his element, but Marshall prods him along.
The bulk of the movie plays like a typical courtroom drama. There are also flashes of pressure at home, where Marshall’s wife, Buster (Keesha Sharp), waits while her husband barnstorms from one case to the next, but not nearly enough. Marshall and Friedman also must battle, sometimes with their fists, local cretins who take matter into their own hands.
It’ll boil down to testimony from Sturbing and Spell, and the way the prosecution and defense handle it, a structure no different from any number of films.
Boseman and Gad are both good. Marshall drinks and smokes and fights in a bar; certainly that’s a side of him we haven’t seen before. If anything, he’s portrayed as a little too good at his job, a risk-taker whose every courtroom hunch pays off.
It’s an interesting approach to the story, but it also holds the film back a bit. Hudlin lets history do some of the work of character development. The case is important, of course. But it seems even more so because of Marshall’s involvement — not because of who he is, resourceful and resolute though he may be, but because of who he will become.