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‘Marshall’ Manages to Be Entertaining Without Trying to Be Great

A relatively bland historical drama is at its best when toeing the line between the comical irony of racism and the outright brutality it inspires

Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman, and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Marshall’ Open Road Films

“Gimme a hand with these will you?” says Thurgood Marshall, lauded attorney and future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s referring to his suitcases, which are full of heavy books: his law library. It travels wherever he travels, and usually these days—meaning the 1940s—he’s hopping around the country to act as legal counsel for black citizens in need, whether because they were accused of crimes they didn’t commit or because they are being unfairly subject to racial segregation. Marshall has arrived in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he’s met at the station by a fellow attorney and eventual trial partner named Sam Friedman: a white guy. In case you hadn't noticed, theirs is already an odd dynamic. It’s 1940 and a black man has just casually instructed a white guy to carry his luggage—and the white guy does it. In another movie, that might signal potential danger, an uppity black man who’s clearly asking for trouble. Here, it’s a source of comic relief.

It’s also a sign of what’s to come. In Marshall, the new movie by director Reginald Hudlin (best known for Boomerang), Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) and Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) must work together to defend a black man named Joseph Spell, a servant who’s been accused of sexually assaulting his boss’s wife (played by Kate Hudson). The couple is white. Accordingly, this movie is no comedy. But moments like the above are among the curious grace notes that save it from being the bland historical drama it otherwise resembles.

Marshall is as full of cookie-cutter dramatic tension as it is of historical intrigue and brow-furrowing procedural thrills. The movie does what it can. Friedman, a clever insurance lawyer with a knack for discovering loopholes in his corporate clients’ favor, has never tried a criminal case before. But he’s been assigned to assist Marshall, who, as an out-of-state attorney, cannot defend Spell on his own. Thanks to an ornery, reckless judge (a thoroughly grumpy James Cromwell), who forbids Marshall from speaking in court, Friedman winds up becoming the de facto lead counsel on the case. It’s more than he can handle—and more than he, a member of a Jewish community that in the early 1940s had troubles of its own, wants to take on. So Marshall, sitting beside him in court for the full extent of the trial, coaches him through the case. He makes the final decisions about the jury, sharpens Friedman’s strategies as a litigator, and more or less puts words in Friedman’s mouth for him to recite in court. Compared to this, commanding him to grab his suitcases upon their first meeting seems ludicrously quaint.

Chadwick Boseman in ‘Marshall’ Open Road Films

That’s part of what makes Marshall a little interesting. There’s an element of farce to all of this—“this” being racism. And Marshall is at its best when toeing the line between the comical irony of that farce and the outright brutality it inspires. What’s here is in fact based on a real case, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. While not one that would come to define Marshall’s storied legal career (we save that distinction for cases like Brown v. Board of Education), it was nevertheless the kind of dangerous tabloid sensation that a movie can use to help put the efforts of the NAACP, which sent Marshall to Connecticut, in context.

This is the historical bullet point Marshall amply demonstrates. The NAACP of this era openly advertised its interest in limiting its clients to black Americans it believed to be innocent, people fighting trials that they were, all other things being equal, morally entitled to win. The stakes of the case of Joseph Spell (played here by Sterling K. Brown) are accordingly high. Spell is a servant at a time when being able to find work as a domestic in a white household was a boon to the black working class. An event like this planted a seed of distrust among whites regarding their black servants—indeed, in the movie, we hear about servants getting fired in light of the case. And that’s to say nothing of sex. The movie is set during a moment in history when consensual sex between a black man and a white woman was unfathomable.

That’s a lot for a movie to chew on. Marshall manages to be entertaining without trying to be great, as it was made by people who know that the story itself is already a good hook. It doesn’t look great either (“TV movie” comes to mind, which is as harsh as some of the movie’s lighting), and the slightly off energy of the actors sometimes comes off as phoning it in. Admirably, despite this, Marshall and Friedman emerge with unexpected complexity, thanks to a crafty, sympathetic sense of humor and timing in Hudlin’s direction and nimble and idea-rich writing from father-son pair Michael and Jacob Koskoff. They collectively give us a Marshall and Friedman who seem linked by fate. They get beaten up at the same time; they face compatible personal pressures with regard to family life and their respective communities. Thanks to his knack for reading social cues, Marshall feels his way through the case by studying the people involved. Friedman, meanwhile, grows alongside the case—and as that happens, Hudlin’s approach to filming the courtroom scenes changes, seemingly giving us a sense of Friedman’s increased physical and rhetorical presence as he litigates.

The casting maybe undercuts the effectiveness of all that. Boseman, who plays Marshall, is on a hot streak of playing black historical figures in movies (Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42, James Brown in Get on Up), to say nothing of his ongoing work as Black Panther in the Marvel universe. It makes his appearance here feel like an in-joke: He’s playing every kind of black hero, super and not, that he can. What’s valuable about him is that he doesn’t look or sound like any of these icons, which in theory relieves him of having to attempt the full-on impersonation he’ll never achieve. In this case, he mostly comes off as a smart, charming-enough, intermittently passionate non-presence. This isn’t the movie to watch if you’re looking for an enraged sense of conviction—which, to be fair, seems intentional.

Gad’s appearance here initially feels unfortunate—I’m not sure his concerted acting efforts have given us a good or coherent movie performance yet—but makes more sense as the movie chirps along, painting his Friedman as the able but hesitant beta half of the duo. He wins you over. And he makes a strong case for the movie really needing to be called Marshall and Friedman. The story the movie tells is as much an account of Marshall’s development into one of the leading legal figures of the 20th century as it is of Friedman’s growth into an arch-defender of civil rights. To quote Marshall: “You’re one of us now, Sam. Haven’t you noticed?” I’ve noticed complaints about Marshall having to share his movie with a white sidekick. Fair enough—but it’s also the case that Jewish leaders were essential collaborators in civil rights efforts and the founding of the NAACP. Have we really had so many movies about that?

There’s a naughty piece of pulp hiding somewhere in here which, by the end, I wished had been properly exploited. With its extensive flashbacks and period-picture demeanor, combined with the fact that this is essentially a story about sex, the movie feels like it’s hinting at a racially charged noir that it never really becomes. Then again, maybe that’d distract from the weird comedy, which emerges as the movie’s most interesting choice. Marshall may not look like much of a movie, but it’s got the soul of one. Smartly, it doesn’t try to be more than it is. The greatness of the great men at its center is ultimately left to history.