Marshall: The Early/Wonder Years of a Future Supreme Court Justice
Apparently, not all (super) heroes wear capes, cowls, and spandex. Some heroes don’t wear them at all. Sometimes they wear two- or three-piece suits, a cleanly pressed shirt, and a matching tie. Sometimes they even carry an overstuffed briefcase filled with books on criminal law and procedure, and maybe even constitutional law. The battleground isn’t an entire city or even a city street, but a courtroom where the lofty, abstract principles of the Law, primarily, but not exclusively, equal protection under the laws as enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, are put to the test and found wanting, where systemic, systematic racism wins far, far more than it loses. But for the Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick “Mr. Biopic” Boseman) we meet in the eponymously titled Marshall, there’s nothing finer, nothing nobler than fighting for truth and justice (not the American way) in a court of law.
Marshall, the onetime executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — and as he ruefully states early on, the only attorney on staff — would go on to become the first African-American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Twenty-five years earlier, however, Marshall roamed the country (minus a mask, a horse, or a catchphrase), righting state-sanctioned wrongs in criminal cases where race was a primary factor and chipping away at the noxious “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined by Plessy v. Ferguson at the turn of the 20th century (1896, to be exact) — a doctrine that would be overturned decisively in1954 in Brown v. Board of Education through the tireless efforts of Marshall and his legal defense team at the NAACP. A Supreme Court win didn’t end racism in or out of public education; it entrenched even further, fueling the then nascent Civil Rights Movement.
Given Marshall’s involvement in the near Herculean efforts to overturn legal segregation, not to mention his two-plus decades on the U.S. Supreme Court, it seems like a curious, maybe even dubious, decision to focus on a little-known case with negligible — actually, no — legal precedent like the one at the center of Marshall: the Connecticut-based criminal trial of an African-American chauffeur, Joseph Spell (2-time Emmy Award-winner Sterling K. Brown), for the rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Unlicensed in Connecticut, Marshall obtains the services of a local insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), to vouch for him before the court. Instead, the trial judge, Foster (James Cromwell), refuses Marshall’s request to appear as Spell’s primary defense attorney and instead relegates Marshall to silent, second chair. He can plot strategy, prep witnesses, and help to write motions and briefs, but he can’t a word during the actual trial.
For a man of Marshall’s intelligence, ability, and determination, qualities that could be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as arrogance or hubris, silence isn’t a first or second option. It’s not an option at all. Instead, he takes the reluctant, risk-adverse Friedman — a go-along conformist by nature — under his wing and gives Friedman a crash course on criminal and constitutional law. Friedman’s thorny, conflict-heavy relationship with Marshall provides the film with its narrative structure. No stranger to prejudice (he’s Jewish in a primarily White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant town), Friedman struggles with the decision to represent Spell and the hit his reputation will take within the town, not to mention (but we’ll mention it, anyway) the overt racists willing to use violence to derail Spell’s chances of receiving a fair, impartial trial by a jury of his (non) peers.
Violence or the threat of racist violence hovers over Marshall, but the Marshall we meet in the film seems practically immune to it. He doesn’t wear armor, not even a bullet-proof vest, but his confidence in his abilities, including oratorical, rhetorical skills with few, if any, contemporary equals, and the morally and ethically rightness of his actions, gives him more than an air of invincibility: It makes him all but untouchable. And while a barroom fight shakes his belief in the theory of the case (i.e., Spell’s innocence), it’s only a temporary obstacle in the path of a Hero’s Journey. Even his condescending, disdainful, overbearing attitude toward Friedman ultimately works wonders: Friedman emerges from the case with real-world experience with a criminal trial, but as the obligatory closing notes inform us, a convert to Marshall’s righteous cause (and if there’s any doubt, it is righteous).
Reginald Hudlin’s (The Great White Hype, Boomerang, House Party) direction, however, leaves far too much to be desired. Never a particularly stylish or inventive director, Hudlin directs Marshall with smooth, competent, but ultimately anonymous efficiency, periodically dropping in clunky color desaturated, conflicting flashbacks (or better description wise, dramatic recreations), one set for Spell and one for Strubing, better suited for second- or third-rate basic cable fare than a big-screen biopic of a Civil Rights pioneer. Hudlin’s direction rarely strays from 101 Filmmaking Basics, mixing establishing shots with medium shots and close-up with little, if any variation. Hudlin’s approach turns the courtroom scenes — here depicted as the arena where not just ideas, but the objective truth will win out — into a tedious slog when they should be anything but. Then again, Hudlin isn’t helped by Jacob Koskoff and his attorney father Michael’s perfunctory, surprise-free screenplay. Even when Marshall builds to a key “revelation,” it’s not just predictable, it’s one even a half-awake moviegoer will surmise a full 30–40 minutes earlier.