“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

I have a confession. I had no interest in seeing the recent movie, “MARSHALL”, when I first heard about it. I thought it would turn out to be one of those solemn biography flicks about some “great man in history” and his struggles to become successful in his endeavors. But when I learned about the movie’s plot, I changed my mind and decided to see it. 

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “MARSHALL” was about a “great man in history” – none other than the first African-American to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. However, this film focused on his position as a defense counselor for and director of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and his role in the 1941 case of “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell”.

Following the successful end of a case in Oklahoma in 1941, NAACP defense attorney Thurgood Marshall returns to New York City for a rest. However, his rest and reunion with his wife, Vivien “Buster” Burey, is short-lived when NAACP Director Walter Francis White sends him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell, a chauffeur accused of rape by his white employer, Eleanor Strubing. In order to get Marshall admitted to the local bar and defend Spell, a local member of the Bridgeport NAACP office tries to recruit an insurance attorney named Sam Friedman to help. However, Friedman is more interested in keeping his distance from the controversial case, until his brother Irwin coerces him into getting involved. Judge Foster a family friend of prosecutor Lorin Willis, agrees to admit Marshall to the local bar. But he forbids Marshall from speaking during the trial. This act forces Friedman to act as Spell’s lead counsel, while Marshall guides the former through the jury selection process and the actual trial. Judge Foster’s refusal to allow Marshall to speak proves to be the first of several stumbling blocks in his and Friedman’s efforts to defend Spell.

Despite the movie’s narrative, “MARSHALL” could have remained one of those stately biopics that usually ends up boring me senseless. Thanks to Reginald Hudlin’s direction and the screenplay written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff, the movie proved to be a lot different. Instead, “MARSHALL” proved to be a very interesting re-creation of the 1941 controversial case in which a black man is accused of raping a white woman. Stories or real life incidents involving interracial rape – especially that of white women – have been around for decades. Stories about racism in the U.S. South have been around for a long time, as well. However, I have also noticed that in recent years, Hollywood has turned its eye upon Northern racism, especially in the Northeast. In its portrayal of the “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell” case, “MARSHALL”turned out to be one of those movies that exposed Northern racism.

I was also impressed by how the Koskoff brothers treated the Spell case as a legal mystery. Ironically, the movie did not begin with scenes that led to Joseph Spell’s arrest. I must admit that I had expected “MARSHALL” to begin with a sequence featuring vague details of the crime. Instead, it began with Thurgood Marshall finishing a case in Oklahoma. The audience learned about the Spell case around the same time Walter White assigned him to defend Joseph Spell. This led me to realize that the entire movie was told from the viewpoint of two people – Marshall and Sam Friedman. Some have criticized the movie for including Friedman as a leading character in the film. They believed this situation robbed the Thurgood Marshall character some of his agency as the film’s leading character, by having Friedman as a co-lead. Personally, I did not mind occasionally watching the film from Friedman’s point-of-view. I found it interesting. And to be honest, history itself set up this situation, due to the trial’s presiding judge refusing to recognize Marshall as Spell’s primary attorney.

However, dealing with a potentially hostile judge and a patronizing prosecutor, and being regulated to secondary attorney for the defense seemed to be a walk in the park for Marshall. He also has to deal with Bridgeport’s racially hostile citizens; pressure from the N.A.A.C.P. to successfully defend Spell; and Friedman, who turned out to be a reluctant and wary co-defender, worried about how his defense of Spell would affect his practice. Marshall also has to deal with Friedman’s lack of experience in criminal law. But the biggest roadblock proves to be Marshall’s growing suspicion that his client is lying about the latter’s relationship with the alleged victim. And I thought the movie did an excellent job keeping these aspects of the story balance, due to the Koskoffs’ screenplay and Hudlin’s direction.

I have a minor quibble regarding the movie. Although the movie made it plain that the N.A.A.C.P. regarded Marshall’s successful defense of Spell as a means to lure more donations for the agency, I believed that it ignored an even more important topic. A part of me wished that the movie had also touched upon Northern blacks’ feelings of being ignored by the agency and the latter’s illusion that most of American racism was focused in the South. Another reason why a “not guilty” for Spell was so important was to convey the message that confronting racism from the North and other parts of the country was just as important as confronting as Southern racism. But I get the feeling that the movie’s producers, writers and director were wary of approaching, let alone exploring this topic.

Considering that “MARSHALL” is not what one would consider a large budget film, I was impressed by its production values. Now I cannot say that any of the film’s technical details blew my mind. Well . . . perhaps two of them did. I found Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography colorful, sharp and lovely to look at. This seemed especially apparent in the film’s exterior shots. I also enjoyed Ruth E. Carter’s costume designs. Not only did I find them to be a close representation of fashion for both men and women in 1941, but they also seemed to be good representations of the major characters’ economic class. As for Richard Hoover’s production designs, Kara Lindstrom’s set decorations and Jeff Schoen’s art direction; I found satisfying, but not particularly memorable.

“MARSHALL” featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Jeffrey DeMunn, John Magaro, Zanete Shadwick, Derrick Baskin, Barrett Doss, Keesha Sharp, Rozanda Sharp, and Jeremy Bobb. Jussie Smollett gave a brief, yet subtle performance as the famous poet, Langston Hughes. And Roger Guenveur Smith was effectively commanding as N.A.A.C.P. director Walter White. Dan Stevens did an excellent job in conveying the patronizing and self-privileged prosecutor Loren Willis. James Cromwell gave a very interesting performance as Judge Foster. Although Cromwell managed to convey his character’s obvious bigotry, it seemed that some of his character’s decisions – including a willingness to allow Marshall to act as second chair for the defense – seemed to express the latter’s unwillingness to put Northern racism on display for the world to see. Kate Hudson’s portrayal of the alleged victim, Eleanor Strubing struck me as effectively ambiguous. Hudson did an excellent job in conveying mixed signals over her character. I felt anger over her character’s charges of rape against the defendant. Yet at the same time, I felt pity toward the character being an obvious victim of spousal abuse. Ironically, Sterling K. Brown also managed to effectively convey the ambiguity of his character, the defendant Joseph Spell. Now, one might wonder why I would regard Spell as an ambiguous character. Brown did an excellent job in expressing his character’s innocence. And yet, the actor also managed to convey the air that his character was lying to Marshall on a certain level.

I have seen Chadwick Boseman in three other films before “MARSHALL”. And I was impressed. But I felt a lot more impressed by his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall in this film. The actor did a superb job in conveying the different aspects of Marshall’s personality – his charisma, witty sense of humor, intelligence and more importantly, a slight perverse streak in his nature. Boseman was very subtle in expressing Marshall’s arrogance and slight tendency of needling . . . especially with Langston Hughes and Sam Friedman. Another first-rate performance came from Josh Gad, who portrayed Friedman, the man forced to act as Spell’s primary defender. I noticed that although Friedman seemed friendly with the head of Bridgeport’s N.A.A.C.P. office, he seemed very wary of helping Marshall with defending Spell. I understood this. He was worried how his participation in the case would look with his own clients and Bridgeport’s Jewish community. But I realized that if Friedman had truly been that racially tolerant at the time, he would not care . . . like his brother. This is why I found it very satisfying to watch Gad develop into that openly tolerant man who no longer cared about how others would regard his views on race and especially African-Americans.

I would never regard “MARSHALL” as one of the best movies of 2017. To be honest, I do not believe in any “best movies of the year” list. But I enjoyed “MARSHALL” so much that in the end, it became one of my favorite movies of that year. And I can thank director Reginald Hudlin, screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff and an excellent cast led by the always talented Chadwick Boseman for making this film so enjoyable and fascinating for me.

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