Re­view: In ‘Marshall,’ a young Thur­good in Con­necti­cut

The Garden Island - - Pau Hana Time -

Thur­good Marshall, a ti­tan of 20th-cen­tury law and a civil rights pi­o­neer, has un­til now largely eluded Hol­ly­wood’s no­tice. De­spite its ti­tle, “Marshall,” too, is wary of tak­ing on the Supreme Court jus­tice in full, stick­ing to a mi­nor case from Marshall’s early ca­reer as coun­sel for the AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS NAACP. That makes, for bet­ter and worse, a some­times slight, some­times se­ri­ous court­room drama, shot through with bright cer­tainty in the com­ing tri­umphs for Marshall and the civil rights move­ment. It’s a su­per­hero-style ori­gin story: Thur­good, pre-”Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion,” pre-black robe.

And there’s some­thing bul­let­proof about Marshall, as played by Chad­wick Bose­man, in Regi­nald Hudlin’s film. Bose­man has launched him­self as a lead­ing man with an am­bi­tious trio of his­tor­i­cal African-Amer­i­can fig­ures: Jackie Robin­son, James Brown and now Marshall. His gift isn’t in con­nect­ing deeply to th­ese char­ac­ters but in cap­tur­ing an in­nate and un­stop­pable swag­ger. His icons are for­ward-mov­ing forces of tal­ent and charisma that no big­otry could hope to con­tain.

In “Marshall,” the at­tor­ney is sent to Bridge­port, Con- necti­cut, to rep­re­sent a black chauf­fer, Joseph Spell (Ster­ling K. Brown), who has been ac­cused by his wealthy, white Green­wich so­cialite em­ployer (Kate Hud­son) of rape and at­tempted mur­der. Marshall, then 33, is an out-of-state at­tor­ney who needs a lo­cal lawyer to help try the case, turn­ing to the re­luc­tant in­sur­ance lawyer Sam Fried­man (Josh Gad).

The sub­ur­ban New Eng­land set­ting dif­fers greatly from the South­ern ter­rain where most civil-rights bat­tles were fought, and where Marshall tried many of his early land­mark cases. But it roils with much of the same racism. Marshall is barred from speak­ing in court by a judge (James Cromwell) lit­tle im­pressed by the NAACP’s man­date to en­sure black de­fen­dants get a fair trial.

But from the mo­ment Marshall breezes into the New Haven train sta­tion and hands his bags to Fried­man to carry, he oozes an un­trou­bled be­lief in his cause and his tac­ti­cal prow­ess at trial. He needs no as­sis­tance, and he gives no quar­ter to prej­u­dice, telling Fried­man to ob­ject over ev­ery racial bias. Where oth­ers stay mum, he proudly de­clares from the court­house steps:

“The Con­sti­tu­tion was not writ­ten for us. We know that. But no mat­ter what it takes, we’re go­ing to make it work for us. From now on, we claim it as our own.”

He’s an un­de­ni­ably em­pow­er­ing and in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure, and “Marshall” is a smooth and straight­for­ward pack­age. That the stakes for jus­tice are high is never in ques­tion, es­pe­cially once Spell — and the ex­treme poise of Brown — takes the stand. But “Marshall” doesn’t go for the kind of grav­ity echoed, say, in the one-man play “Thur- good,” which James Earl Jones per­formed on the stage and Lau­rence Fish­burne on the screen. There’s a light comic in­ter­play between Bose­man and Gad. Marshall sorts the case out with­out crack­ing a book or break­ing a sweat.

And, well, Con­necti­cut has never ex­actly had the dra­matic pull of other, more ex­plo­sive states when it comes to civil rights bat­tles or, well, most any­thing else. Cur­rently in de­vel­op­ment is a film adap­ta­tion of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize win­ner “Devil in the Grove,” which chron­i­cles a 1949 case of Marshall’s in Grov­e­land, Flor­ida. That, per­haps, will be a richer, more evoca­tive tale.

But not all civil-rights bat­tles need to carry the weight of the world on their shoul­ders. That will fall to fu­ture in­stall­ments of Marshall’s ex­ploits — and up­com­ing films for Bose­man, who’ll soon star as the Mar­vel hero in “Black Pan­ther.” Amer­ica.

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