A Mostly Mediocre Marshall

It says a lot about the versatility of Reginald Hudlin that he directed House Party, a fun and frothy 1990 teen comedy, and Marshall, the new biopic about an early case taken by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Marshall is an intermittently interesting story about a great dramatic subject, but it’s too often placid and standoffish. While obviously the subject matter of Marshall calls for gravitas, the film could have used some of the pulsing energy of House Party. That is, not energy and movement to make the subject matter seem frivolous, but rather just enough to give it a well-needed jolt. After all, Thurgood Marshall was called a “superhero” by a fellow lawyer, was a passionate husband, and was friends with jazz musicians and the poet Langston Hughes. In the biopic, one gets the sense that Hudlin tried to create a museum piece. It’s an excusable flaw considering that Marshall was a giant of the civil rights era and the first African American Supreme Court justice. The film gains intensity as it works towards its conclusion, but it’s too little too late.

Written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff, the story is set many years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision that made Marshall a household name in 1954. Marshall (Chadwick Bosemon) is a lawyer in his thirties, criss-crossing the country to take on cases for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He is sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where a wealthy white socialite named Eleanor Strubling (Kate Hudson) has accused her black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) of two crimes: raping her, then driving to a local bridge and pushing her into the water below.

Marshall is not a member of the Connecticut bar, so he recruits a local Jewish lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to join him as Spell’s representation. Marshall has argued before the United States Supreme Court, whereas the short and heavyset family man Friedman has only handled insurance cases, never criminal ones. The judge rules that because Marshall is from out of town, he can only be a member of Spell’s defense team if he’s not allowed to speak in court—an ironic and cruel hindrance, considering that Thurgood Marshall was known for his powerful oratory.

On paper, Marshall overflows with great elements. There’s the story of battling racial injustice, a powerful tale of good versus evil. There’s the detective angle, in which Marshall pieces together the crime scene evidence to challenge the rape charge made by Strubling. (This plot of a black outsider dealing with intellectual inferiors was also used in the great 1967 racial drama In the Heat of the Night.) There’s what the Jungians call “animus integration,” as Marshall, a physically powerful man and intellectual heavyweight who carries around suitcases filled with law books, mentors Friedman in how to be a lion in court.

Taken individually, the elements are fantastic. But as a whole, Marshall falters. It’s often boring, something almost inconceivable considering the explosiveness of the original story. Most of this is due fundamental mistakes. Marshall is underwritten, lacking the dialogue that made In the Heat of the Night so powerful. The direction often doesn’t come in close to see the emotions of the characters, preferring, especially in the first hour of the film, to shoot from a distance using flat angles. The lighting in the courtroom scenes is musty, like something out of a made-for-TV historical drama.

In one scene Marshall goes to a jazz club and runs into literary lights Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston. Incredibly, considering the personalities depicted, the scene is actual bland.

Also there’s the score. While it’s refreshing to not have a film giving broad, pounding musical cues, the music by jazz musician Marcus Miller is too invisible in Marshall. This is a story punctuated with huge emotional crests. One of strongest is when Eleanor Strubling claims that Joseph Spell had her gagged so she could not scream. Sam Friedman places the gag over his own mouth, and instructed by Marshall (who has ignored the judge’s order to remain silent) lets out an ear-splitting scream. It’s an awesome moment, loaded with immediate pathos and the broader symbolism of a black lawyer in the 1940s using his voice for justice, despite the white powers that be. The score should have reflected the intensity of the action on screen.

The movie’s cast is first-rate. Chadwick Boseman, so thrilling as Jackie Robinson in 42 and currently playing Marvel’s Black Panther, captures the Baltimore lawyer’s wit and swagger. Boseman not only has movie-star good looks, but eyes that reflect tenderness and empathy. Josh Gad as Samuel Friedman makes what could have been a second-banana role into a wonderful portrait of a family man personally devastated by losing relatives in Europe to Hitler’s genocide, but who uses that anguish to fight for the oppressed in America. Kate Hudson is strong as the wealthy housewife who presents an icy exterior until her loneliness cracks through in the final moments.

Had director Hudlin not seemed intimidated to draw close to these characters, had the music and screenwriting risen more to the challenge of dramatizing a great man, Marshall could have won its case.