‘Marshall’ biopic por­trays civil rights leg­end as real-life su­per­hero

The Day - - DAYBREAK - By JOHN AN­DER­SON

Let’s ad­mit the truth, the whole truth and noth­ing but the truth: We hear there’s a movie about Thur­good Marshall — the cru­sad­ing civil rights lawyer who ar­gued the land­mark Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion case and be­came the first black jus­tice on the U.S. Supreme Court — and we ex­pect some­thing high-minded, no­ble, earnest and medic­i­nal. With heroic mu­sic. And ha­los.

When it opens to­day, “Marshall” may force a re­order­ing of our ex­pec­ta­tions.

“Peo­ple are re­spond­ing to this movie like it’s ‘Won­der Wo­man,” said Josh Gad (“Book of Mor­mon,” “Beauty and the Beast”), who plays Sam Fried­man, the real-life lawyer who is dra­gooned by Thur­good Marshall (Chad­wick Bose­man) into fight­ing a case of racial in­jus­tice in 1941 Con­necti­cut. Gad may not be an im­par­tial wit­ness, but he put his fin­ger on what dis­tin­guishes “Marshall” from your stan­dard Hol­ly­wood biopic: If they called it “Thur­good Marshall, Su­per­hero” it wouldn’t be that far off.

“At its core, it’s a crowd pleaser,” said Gad. “That might be some­thing with some neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, but I think it’s also hope­ful, and em­pow­er­ing. And let’s not for­get that Reg­gie comes from the world of writ­ing comic books, in­clud­ing ‘Black Pan­ther.’ ”

“Reg­gie” is di­rec­tor Regi­nald Hudlin, whose eclec­tic ca­reer — which be­gan with the com­edy “House Party” (1990), di­rected with his brother War­ring­ton — has in­deed in­cluded work in the Mar­vel Uni­verse. And he freely ad­mits the con­nec­tion.

“Some­times,” he said, “to ap­pre­ci­ate the achieve­ments of th­ese great men we have to take them off the pedestal. In the case of Thur­good Marshall, our men­tal im­age of him is as an old man, in robes, se­questered away in the Supreme Court. So to see him as a young man, smok­ing, drink­ing, flirt­ing, fight­ing — you’ll be, ‘Oh I know this guy!’ And when he’s a guy with all this swag­ger and is the smartest guy in any room he’s in, it’s kind of amaz­ing he’s hu­man. In fact, he’s more than hu­man. So we get back to the su­per­hero place in a very nat­u­ral, earned way.”

Marshall is played by Bose­man, who has had some ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing trail­blaz­ers (Jackie Robin­son in “42”; James Brown in “Get on Up”). When the film opens, Marshall is the NAACP’s chief le­gal coun­sel and Bose­man makes him a charis­matic, cock­sure cru­sader for equal rights, one with an un­con­cealed con­tempt for in­sti­tu­tional racism. Out­side of a ten­der, of­ten long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ship with his beloved wife, Buster (Kee­sha Sharp), Marshall’s life is ded­i­cated to cases of racial in­jus­tice, one of which he finds in Bridge­port, Con­necti­cut — a black chauf­feur named Joseph Spell (Ster­ling K. Brown) has been ac­cused of as­sault­ing and at­tempt­ing to mur­der his white

em­ployer (Kate Hud­son).

The whole case smells, as do the rul­ings from the bench: Marshall is barred from par­tic­i­pat­ing by the pre­sid­ing judge (James Cromwell). So while Marshall con­tin­ues to di­rect the de­fense, lo­cal at­tor­ney Fried­man has to take over the court­room pre­sen­ta­tion.

“The film is pretty close to what ac­tu­ally hap­pened,” said Gad. “It's a case that's sort of been for­got­ten in light of what else hap­pened in the man's life, but at the time it was tabloid fod­der: You had an African-Amer­i­can chauf­feur ac­cused of rap­ing his white em­ployer. You had fam­i­lies all over Bridge­port fir­ing any em­ploy­ees who were ‘col­ored.' In many ways at that time it was a death penalty to lose your job, so it isn't just about Joseph Spell. It's about an en­tire com­mu­nity.”

It's also a lot about Fried­man, who for di­rec­tor Hudlin rep­re­sents some­thing more than just a char­ac­ter in an ob­scure crim­i­nal case.

“He's kind of the au­di­ence,” the di­rec­tor said. “We're all liv­ing our lives, get­ting along, things are un­fair but we re­ally can't com­plain. And then Thur­good Marshall crashes in — and you re­al­ize he's pro­vid­ing some­thing you're miss­ing, which is a mis­sion.”

The mis­sion of the film, Hudlin said, has changed a bit since they were mak­ing it more than a year ago; race re­la­tions weren't so fraught and the U.S. elec­tion was just un­der­way. “Dan Stevens, who's English, was fol­low­ing the Brexit vote,” he said, re­fer­ring to the ex-”Down­ton Abbey” ac­tor who plays pros­e­cu­tor Lorin Wil­lis. “And we're say­ing, ‘Nah that will never hap­pen.' Then it does and we say, ‘What does that mean?' And we find out later.

“So the movie does two things,” Hudlin con­tin­ued. “There's a com­fort that comes from know­ing that when good peo­ple come to­gether, ded­i­cated to the truth, the truth will set you free.” At the same time, he said, the movie ends with more peo­ple com­ing to Thur­good Marshall for help, with more tales of racial in­jus­tice, “and au­di­ences are like ‘Right: The strug­gle con­tin­ues.' And we have to keep fight­ing. The truth is, free­dom ain't free. And ev­ery gen­er­a­tion has to be tested.”

BARRY WETCHER/OPEN ROAD FILMS VIA AP

Chad­wick Bose­man stars as Thur­good Marshall in “Marshall.”

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