Chadwick Boseman adds to his growing repertoire of Great Figures in African American History with “Marshall,” a light and thoroughly entertaining historical drama about a trial that helped make future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s reputation.
Its subject and themes — racial injustice, the importance of the rule of law and fighting for civil rights — give it the inspiring feel of “A movie America needs to see Right Now.” And Boseman as Marshall may be regal, smart and aloof to the point of patronizing. But the actor’s not above giving us that mischievous sideways glance that let us in on the fun in “42” (as Jackie Robinson) and “Get On Up” (as James Brown).
In 1941, Marshall was the sole hotshot attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), traveling the country, grandstanding in court in cases he and his boss (Roger Guenveur Smith) figure can make some larger political point even as he’s struggling to save unjustly accused black person or right one festering social wound.
When a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of raping a rich white woman in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, that’s where Marshall goes. This isn’t just about another “To Kill a Mockingbird” (before that book was published) case. Black servants all over the supposedly liberal north will lose their jobs if white employers up there believe they’re capable of such monstrous, high-profile crimes.
But Marshall needs a local attorney to vouch for him before the judge, to be co-counsel in the Bridgeport court. And that’s where the small-time sell-out Sam Friedman, laboring in the soul-dead world of civil insurance law.
Josh Gad and the screenwriters make Friedman an EveryMensch, a little (big) man easily buffaloed by the Big City lawyer who’s argued before the Supreme Court. The last thing a Jewish immigrant lawyer in WASP country wants is to get “a reputation” via Marshall, for rocking the boat.
And yes, what’s happening to Jews in Europe is on his mind, too.
“Find someone who wants this attention…This is NOT my PROBLEM.”
But Marshall ignores him. He talks the accused into accepting their services, orders Sam’s more Civil Rights conscious brother (John Magaro) about and starts making statements to the press.
“The Constitution was not written for US, but from this moment on, we claim it as our own!”
All before the Old Money Judge (James Cromwell, perfect) denies him the right to speak in court. All before the jury is seated. All before the Senate-bound prosecutor (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey,” venom delivered in a velvet glove) unloads his arsenal on “this heinous crime.”
“Marshall” gives us just enough of the world the man circulated in to make its points. “Whites Only” waterfountains, black lawyers forced to work as taxi drivers in states where they could not practice law, a traveling black attorney forced to stay with a local black family because no hotel would accept him.
And there’s a hint of the exciting social and cultural milieu that made the man, New York clubs where he could rub elbows and swap put-downs with the famed poet Langston Hughes, only to have Zora Neale Hurston show up and change the stakes.
Comedy vet Reginald Hudlin (“Boomerang,” “Serving Sara,” lots of sitcom episodes) only lets on that gravitas isn’t his thing with the film’s laugh-out-loud courtroom “gotchas” and the light touch he brings to even the inevitable racist beatdowns. He seems to forget the stakes involved, that this is a RAPE TRIAL, and goes for the easy laugh almost every time.
That said, “Marshall” makes for an entertaining take on history and Boseman’s winning performance a playful spin on an icon the passing decades have chiseled in stone as a Great Man and one of the giants of American legal history.
And if you can’t figure out why this story and this man and this piece of history are worth remembering now — of all times — you must be living under a rock.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, James Cromwell, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens.
Running time: 1:58