by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 13, 2017

Chadwick Boseman stars in 'Marshall
Chadwick Boseman stars in 'Marshall  

After various television appearances ("ER," "Third Watch") and a role in the movie "The Kill Hole," Chadwick Boseman shot to fame with his brilliant portrayal of Jackie Robinson in the 2013 biopic titled for the baseball legend's number, "42." Boseman followed that up with a role in the film "Draft Day," but once again garnered serious attention when he played another icon, James Brown, in 2014's "Get On Up."

Boseman -- as have so many other gifted actors -- has jumped on the comic book movie train and plays T'Challa (a.k.a., Black Panther) in the DC shared universe "Avengers" films. (T'cholla is also slated for his solo adventure in a feature to be released next year.) But look for the gatekeepers at awards ceremonies to sit up and take notice of Boseman once again as he portrays yet a third important historical figure, Thurgood Marshall.

Reginald Hudlin's film is not a sweeping, start-to-finish biopic of America's first African American Supreme Court justice. Nor does it bear much resemblance to the acclaimed one-man play of the same title. Instead, this immersively wrought, well-designed period piece focuses on a single case from Marshall's pre-Supreme Court career, and a case that took place relatively early in that career, before Marshall spearheaded a series of legal challenges to America's racist laws and policies and won the pivotal case "Brown v. Board of Education" in 1954.

"Marshall" is set just prior to World War II. Fascists abroad are ascendant; at home, racial and religious prejudice is so deeply inculcated into American culture that it's a way of life. Turgid Marshall is an idealistic young lawyer working for the NAACP. He trans the nation taking on cases in which African Americans have been falsely accused of crimes, based on little or nothing more than their race.

One such case involves a socialite named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), who claims to have been raped by her chauffeur, a man named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown). Racially based terror reigns in the town where the alleged rape took place; households that employ African Americans as domestic servants are firing those servants en masse out of fear of being the next victim, and the newspapers are rife with racist caricatures showing "King Kong"-like scenarios of gorillas abducting helpless blondes. It's absurd -- and yet, how very contemporary that hysteria feels inner xenophobic age, tainted now as then with racial bias. The kicker: This isn't taking place in some backwater of Georgia or Alabama. The frenzied town in question is located up North, in Connecticut.

Locally, Spell is represented by a reluctant insurance attorney named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad). The judge (James Cromwell) presiding over Spell's trial is skeptical about allowing Marshall to be present at the trial, but accedes under the condition that Marshall not speak while the court is in session. Fine, then: Marshall engineers strategies and pokes huge holes in the prosecution's version of events.

The prosecution, meantime, is as lily-white (and as arrogant) as they come. The prosecutor, Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens), has longtime family ties to the town and the men who run it -- including the judge. (Stevens oozes WASPy privilege -- it's almost like he's playing an Americanized, dark universe version of his "Downton Abby" character.)

The film is a courtroom drama with tinges of a police procedural; the meat of the story lies with the question of what really happened on the night in question. (As the wife of a colleague from the NAACP points out to Marshall, women don't just make up rape stories for fun; if Mrs. Strubing is lying, there must be a reason for it.) Various personal lives come briefly into and out of focus, but only Marshall's marital woes (he and wife buster, played Keesha Sharp, have had no luck trying to become parents) and the strain placed on Friedman's family play significant parts. (Not incidentally, Friedman is Jewish, and the bias he faces is not so very dissimilar to that Marshall has to contend with; moreover, the Friedmans have relatives under threat in Europe, where anti-Semitic sentiment is at a fever pitch.)

Even so, the film keeps those elements on the back burner, preferring to emphasize the dynamics of the courtroom and the unraveling of the mystery surrounding Mrs. Strubing's claims, much as it concentrates with single-minded intensity in this particular case, summarizing Marshall's subsequent legal and judicial career as the end credits roll. Everything else feels tacked on -- racist thugs emerging from the shadows to threaten, and even assault, Marshall and Friedman; deeply divided crowds (whites on one side, blacks on the other) bearing placards and hurling epithets on the courthouse steps.

That narrowness of focus blunts the film's impact. You walk into the theater knowing who Marshall was and why he was important but you get little here that you didn't bring yourself, other than the film's consistent reminders about the time's corrosive, all-pervading racist attitudes. The case in question might just as well have involved any lawyer or fictitious characters, and its overall feeling of outrage and contemporary resonance would be the same. Thurgood Marshall ends up a guest star in his own movie, his piercing intelligence and assured competence an echo of Sidney Poitier's Detective Tibbs from 1967's much more groundbreaking "In the Heat of the Night."

Making up for these shortfalls is glorious production design by Richard Hoover and nostalgia-soaked cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. Yes, race hatred made the deeper social context ugly, but based on surface appearances alone you could have a throb of longing for the past in which "Marshall" is set -- a time of classic clothes and storybook Americana.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.