Sunday 10 January 2021

Movie Review: Marshall (2017)

A biographical courtroom drama, Marshall recounts a milestone court case in the career of the first Black judge to serve on the United State Supreme Court.

In the early 1940s, the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) is struggling to justify itself and attract donors. Brash lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is assigned by the NAACP to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) a Black chauffeur accused of raping and attempting to kill society lady Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Spell vehemently professes his innocence, and Marshall teams up with local insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to mount a defence. The ambitious Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens) prosecutes, and Judge Foster (James Cromwell) presides, allowing the out-of-state Marshall to be present in the courtroom but not to speak. Marshall has to coach Friedman every step of the way, while raising the profile of the case and uncovering the web of lies surrounding the rape allegations.

Although Marshall is a predominantly familiar courtroom fight for justice carrying echoes of a real-life To Kill A Mockingbird, director Reginald Hudlin infuses the drama with enough quality and pointed conflict to overcome the predictable elements. With several underlined moments of dialogue but otherwise minimal aggrandizing, the film flourishes by defining the personality of a pioneering giant in the history of the United States civil rights movement.

Hudlin remains focused on one man's fate to achieve the broader historical impact. The script by Michael and Jacob Koskoff creates a worthwhile mystery where the truth is elusive on all fronts, and where Joseph Spell is only receiving a court date instead of a lynching because the rape allegations against him are in Connecticut and not the deep south. But the relatively liberal good folks of Bridgeport still harbour deep-seated prejudices, and in a she-said, he-said case with a respectable white woman as purported victim, Spell is always on the back foot. Marshall is thrust into the multiple roles of investigator, psychologist and coach to navigate a tortured path towards the facts.

But this is also a perfect showcase for an NAACP seeking to halt years of impulsive mistreatment of Black defendants. Spell's predicament resonates as a grander call for colourblind investigations of the truth, the case a microcosm of both the failings and potential of the justice system. Marshall critically recognizes the value of national publicity and notoriety in ultimately creating new baseline realities for Black defendants.

The film's visual beauty matches the sharp intellectual contest. With brown, black and grey colours dominating and the rise of fascism in Europe a looming backdrop, Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography eloquently recreates 1940s society and aesthetics.

Chadwick Boseman provides Marshall with an impish charm and confident swagger. His performance enlivens the drama, but also cries out for more background exposition on the events and upbringing that shaped the man. Josh Gad ably rides the most complex arc, from Friedman's initial reluctance to get involved all the way to embracing a new career calling. Sitting at the top of the courtroom, James Cromwell is a domineering presence as a judge of his times but glimpsing the future, while Kate Hudson gets a rare opportunity to shine in a meaningful if small role.

Forceful and dashing, Marshall nudges legal history towards enlightenment.

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