4 out of 5 stars (one of the best of the year)
I’ll be completely honest here: The primary reason I saw Marshall was because Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t at my local theater. The trailer for Marshall made it look like an overly serious legal drama that would likely drown in its own self-importance (not that I’m downplaying the importance of this case, but Hollywood has a tendency to over-dramatize these “based on real events” stories to the point of hilarity). I entered expecting a film that would get on its soap box about race issues in an attempt to be relevant in these racially divided times. Thankfully, it avoids that nauseating trope and instead does something that far more biopics should do: Marshall is a solidly entertaining legal drama that humanizes its subject without placing him on a “higher than thou” pedestal.
The story follows Thurgood Marshall (A charming Chadwick Boseman, soon to appear as Marvel’s Black Panther), an African-American lawyer for the NAACP. Marshall is the best at what he does, travelling around the country fighting for innocent black men to receive fair treatment under the law rather than be unjustly trampled by it. He’s like Gandhi with a suit and a legal degree, spreading justice wherever he goes.
Marshall’s newest assignment is Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of NBC’s This is Us) a black man on trial for the rape and attempted murder of white upper-class socialite Eleanor Strubbing (a decent Kate Hudson). However, as the judge (James Cromwell) isn’t particularly fond of out-of-towners who aren’t licensed to practice locally, Marshall is partnered with white insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (A surprisingly good Josh Gad), and forbidden to speak during the trial. Add one sniveling poster child for upper crust aristocratic entitlement (You know, the kind that Americans despise), in opposing council Loren Willis (a delightfully hateable Dan Stevens), and Marshall is in for the case of his life, facing doubt, racism, and finding a surprising ally in Friedman along the way.
Marshall is a great movie. It’s not as brutal as, say, 12 Years a Slave, but it still gives you an understanding of the hardships faced by African-Americans in this time period. Much of this is due to Chadwick Boseman’s wonderful performance, imbuing Marshall with sincerity, humor, and, most importantly, a palpable belief in positive change that makes him easy to root for. Josh Gad also turns in a great performance, believably turning from an inexperienced yet well-meaning lawyer to a man who understands the importance of what he’s fighting for in this case. Their chemistry is one of the film’s best aspects and makes the two-hour runtime fly by. Hudson and Brown are good if a bit unmemorable, and Stevens relishes playing the most unsubtley biased lawyer this side of Alabama.
All that said, the most surprising element of this film is its sense of humor. It would have been all too easy to make Marshall a depressing “message of the week” film whose only purpose for existence was to tell us how awful race relations used to be. To my immense joy, the film was able to address the subject while possessing well-placed humor to liven up the proceedings and balance out the legal drama. It’s not a comedy by any means, but the filmmakers understand that real people are not stoic beings: they can have more emotions than angry, sad, or impassioned. Hopefully more films will follow this trend of, well, making human beings act like actual human beings instead of overly serious robots who perpetually gaze off into the distance (I’m looking right at, well, most summer movies of 2017).
My only complaint is minimal, but worth noting. I understand the film is in a different time period, but the music sometimes makes it feel like a TV movie rather than a theatrical release. The biggest example is in the flashback when Eleanor recounts her rape to the court. While the acting was all well and good, the music made me think I was watching the opening to an episode of the original CSI.
Marshall is an engaging, well-acted, and empowering film that allows you to see the humanity in its subject. Chadwick Boseman is on the track to stardom, and Josh Gad shows unexpected screen presence. The script balances courtroom drama with occasional bits of humor, the message is clear without banging you over the head, and the story is fascinating. See Marshall at your local theater, or on streaming when it comes. We need more movies that inform and entertain in equal measure, and this could be that trailblazer.
Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Content, Sexuality, Violence, And Some Strong Language
This title is available on Amazon here
12 Years a Slave is available on Amazon here
Thor: Ragnarok is available on Amazon here
This is Us is available on Amazon here
Season 2 available here