At their best, historical dramas function as a form of time travel. They can transport us to a different era, a different culture, a different way of thinking. By teaching us about who we once were, they can inform our perspective of who we currently are. A successful historical drama, then, becomes a landmark of sorts — it situates us with regard to where we are and where we need to go.
Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall” mostly manages to accomplish this function. The film, set during the World War II era, follows acclaimed attorney and later Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) on one of his earlier trials as a lawyer. The case itself involves an accusation against Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a Black man who has been imprisoned for allegedly assaulting and raping his white employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The head of the NAACP senses that something is amiss about the case and puts Marshall on the side of Spell’s defense, teaming him up with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a local insurance lawyer.
It is here, after establishing the plot, that the movie introduces its central conceit: Marshall, being an out-of-state attorney, is told by the judge that he cannot actually speak for the defense. The judge rules that Friedman, an attorney with no prior criminal law experience, should take the reins of the trial, instead. The story that ensues for the rest of the movie is one filled with twists, turns and repeated speeches about the law as the last line of defense.
The most impressive feature of “Marshall” is its world-building. Before starting with the legal proceedings, “Marshall” takes its time to introduce us to a world in which racial discrimination is practiced with abandon — where the judges themselves can be former members of the Ku Klux Klan, where even preeminent attorneys like Thurgood Marshall himself are not spared the threat of violence and guiltless murder.
Sam Friedman and his Jewish family also have to face the harsh reality of living in a world in which the Holocaust is imminent. Given the racial tensions of the era, “Marshall” makes sure to not end on a wholly feel-good and comprehensive note — a smart move on the part of the director. The movie instead rightly points out that that the issues its characters are grappling with will remain like a devil in the closet, always present, ready to come out at a moment’s notice.
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“Marshall” also effectively portrays the law as a weapon that can confront this devil. The books inside Marshall’s briefcase are cornily established early on as his “guns.” The movie — in a really clever use of a wide-angle shot — introduces the courtroom itself as a battlefield of sorts, replete with a biased judge and a villainous opposition.
“Marshall’s” other positive is its supporting cast. In particular, Gad ably portrays the self-doubt at the heart of Friedman’s character. Dan Stevens also turns in a fine performance as the central antagonist for Marshall and Friedman. A scene in which he irritably swats away a plate after seeing Marshall eat from it is an excellent example of his character’s, well, douchebaggery.
Brown is also great as Spell, though one wishes he had a more comprehensive and well-written character.
Where “Marshall” ultimately stumbles is in its treatment of its eponymous subject. Boseman is a force of nature as the towering Marshall. Besides successfully embodying the intensity, the swagger and the confidence of Marshall, however, Boseman does not really get the chance to explore the humanity at Marshall’s core. The movie treats Marshall as a hero, as it well should, but we do not get the opportunity to see the flaws and the foibles that made the hero who he is in the first place. A story arc with Marshall’s wife seemed like it could have established an intimacy we so dearly needed with the character. The arc itself, however, is poorly handled and relegated to the background.
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The incomplete subplot with Marshall’s wife also highlights another flaw of the movie: questionable editing. The flashbacks to the fateful night of Strubing’s alleged rape soon get repetitive and exhausting. The vomit-inducing color palette doesn’t help matters, either. There is also a random cameo by Sophia Bush in an out-of-place bar fight sequence that only exists so that Marshall can have an epiphany about his case.
Overall, “Marshall” is a solid film that could have been so much more. With the right writing and the right editing, the movie could have been one of the the landmarks we so dearly need to guide us in this day and age — an age in which the devil in the closet, hungry for a fight, is getting ready to come out.
Contact Arjun Sarup at [email protected].