Thur­good Marshall biopic tells sur­face-level story of real-life ju­di­cial hero

The Detroit News - - Front Page - Detroit News Film Critic

Chad­wick Bose­man is cor­ner­ing the mar­ket on play­ing hugely in­flu­en­tial African-Amer­i­cans in me­diocre biopics. In 2013’s “42,” Bose­man played Jackie Robin­son and the next year he took on James Brown in “Get On Up.” Nei­ther movie made much of a dent; both were hob­bled by scripts that failed to en­cap­su­late the hugely im­por­tant lives of its sub­jects and their im­pact on the cul­ture at large.

Now comes “Marshall,” the story of Thur­good Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first African-Amer­i­can jus­tice. The film casts Bose­man as Marshall, a hot­shot young at­tor­ney ar­gu­ing cases for the NAACP, well be­fore he joins the Supreme Court. But the movie gets tripped up on its own robe, throw­ing Marshall into a typ­i­cal court­room drama that plays out like an ex­tended episode of “Law & Or­der,” with no real sense for Marshall or what made him tick. Jus­tice to­ward Marshall is not served.

The story starts in 1941 and Marshall is al­ready a boss, an at­tor­ney in his early 30s with a swag­ger in his step and a fire in his belly. “Marshall” side­steps back­story — by the time we meet him, Marshall has ar­gued and won his first case be­fore the Supreme Court — and asks view­ers to dive right in.

That’s no prob­lem, since Bose­man plays Marshall as a smart, cocky, gifted and charm­ing young lawyer. He’s al­most like a comic book char­ac­ter, Su­perLawyer, and you can see “Marshall” as one episode in a vol­ume of se­ri­al­ized court cases. Heck, at the end of this one, he’s al­ready jet­ting off to the next place that needs him; all he needs is a cape and a mask and he’s ready to go.

The case he’s fight­ing is a sor­did tale of a wealthy, priv­i­leged white wo­man (Kate Hud­son) in Con­necti­cut who ac­cuses her black ser­vant (Ster­ling K. Brown) of ty­ing her up and rap­ing her. (The movie is based on a true story.) But it doesn’t take long for it to fall into fa­mil­iar court­room pro­ce­dural pat­terns, as well as bland, over-gen­er­al­ized char­ac­ter­i­za­tions

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of its sup­port­ing play­ers (in­clud­ing James Cromwell as the sub­tly racist judge and Dan Stevens as the sub­tly racist pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney).

Josh Gad is Marshall’s re­luc­tant trial part­ner, an in­sur­ance lawyer in over his head in the case. But af­ter Judge Foster (Cromwell) bars Marshall from speak­ing in court — he hangs his rul­ing on Marshall not be­ing bar-cer­ti­fied in the state of Con­necti­cut — Marshall can only par­tic­i­pate in the trial by writ­ing notes to his part­ner.

A case for Su­perLawyer, in­deed. The script by fa­ther-son duo Michael and Ja­cob Koskoff (Michael worked civil rights cases within the Con­necti­cut ju­di­cial sys­tem) is well-heeled in the beats and rhythms of Hol­ly­wood court­room drama and is built for au­di­ence-pleas­ing “ooh!” and “aah!” mo­ments.

It’s less ef­fec­tive at paint­ing a por­trait of Marshall; it’s not so much his story as it is the story of a trial in which Marshall hap­pened to be a player. The film in­tro­duces in­tol­er­ance and ha­tred as a hur­dle for Marshall and Gad’s char­ac­ter (who is Jewish), but it doesn’t roll up its sleeves and get into the nit­tygritty of the is­sues. It’s all sur­face-level.

Helmed by sea­soned TV di­rec­tor Regi­nald Hudlin (who also made “House Party” and “Boomerang”), “Marshall” has a spir­ited en­ergy un­til it falls vic­tim to trashy cliches in its fi­nal act. And you have to think there are bet­ter ways to tell the

ADAM GRA­HAM

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