“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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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

Ten Favorite Movies Set During the Victorian Age (1837-1901)

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the Victorian Age: 

 

TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET DURING THE VICTORIAN AGE (1837-1901)

1. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this seventh and latest version of A.E.W. Mason’s novel about disgraced British officer Harry Faversham’s efforts to redeem himself for leaving the Army at the start of a war in the Sudan. Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson and Wes Bentley star.

2. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this only version of Emily Bronte’s brooding tale of a star-crossed romance on the Yorkshire moors to be set during the mid-19th century. Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and David Niven starred.

3. “The Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton directed and wrote this loose adaptation of an actual robbery of a train filled with gold headed for the Crimea in 1855. Sean Connery, Lesley Anne Down, and Donald Sutherland starred.

4. “Without a Clue” (1988) – Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley starred in this humorous spoof of the Sherlock Holmes legend, in which Holmes is a fictional character created by Dr. John Watson.

5. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law portrayed Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in this exciting tale filled with murder, politics and magic. Guy Ritchie directed.

6. “Angels and Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this drama based upon A.S. Byatt’s novella about a British naturalist who marries into an aristocratic . . . with surprising results. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit star.

7. “Stardust” (2007) – Based upon Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel set during 19th century England, this movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfieffer and Robert DeNiro.

8. “Royal Flash” (1975) – Malcolm McDowell portrayed George MacDonald Fraser’s literary anti-hero in this adaptation of the latter’s 1970 novel that was partially set in early Victorian England.

9. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this story about two rival magicians in late Victorian England.

10. “An Ideal Husband” (1999) – Based upon Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play about political corrpution and blackmail in high society, this movie starred Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Jeremy Northam and Julianne Moore.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

 

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

To my knowledge, there have been seven cinematic versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 adventure story, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS”. The first version was released in 1915 as a black-and-white silent film. The most famous and highly revered version was produced by legendary producer Alexander Korda in 1939. And the latest version – the focus of this review – was released in 2002. Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson and Wes Bentley starred in the film. And it was directed by Shekhar Kapur.

”THE FOUR FEATHERS” began with Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young British officer of the Royal Cumbrians infantry regiment and the son of a stern British general, celebrating his recent engagement to the beautiful young Ethne (Kate Hudson) in a lavish ball with his fellow officers and his father in attendance. When the regimental colonel announced that the regiment is being dispatched to Egyptian-ruled Sudan to rescue the British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon (who was being besieged in Khartoum by Islamic rebels of The Mahdi), young Faversham became nervous and resigned his commission. After resigning his commission, Harry’s charmed life began to fall apart. Despite his claims that his decision to in order to stay in England with new fiancée because he would never “go to war for anyone or anything”, three of his fellow officers – Tom Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones), Edward Castleton (Kris Marshall) and William Trench (Michael Sheen) censured Harry by delivery three white feathers (signs of cowardice). Ethne ended their engagement and presented him with a fourth feather. And both Harry’s best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) and his father, General Faversham (Tim Piggott-Smith) disavowed him. With his former comrades already en route to the conflict, the young Faversham questioned his own true motives, and resolved to redeem himself through combat in Sudan. Disguised as an Arab laborer, he accompanied a French slave trader to take him deep into the Sudanese desert. Faversham is left alone in the vast sands when the slave trader is killed by his own Sudanese slaves. Eventually a lone black Sudanese warrior named Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), who is against the Mahdists’ rebellion, came to Harry’s aid and helped the latter redeem himself through combat against the Mahdists.

In the beginning, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” bore a strong resemblance to the 1902 novel it is based upon and the 1939 movie. Granted, in this version, General Faversham is a living and somewhat stern parent, and not some dead military hero in whose shadow Harry is forced to live. And Ethne’s father is dead. The most important aspect of this version of the story is the fact that the British presence in the Sudan is not portrayed in a sympathetic light. Following Colonel Hamilton’s (Alex Jennings) announcement of the Royal Cumbrians being deployed to the Sudan, Harry made this comment to Jack:

” “What does a godforsaken desert, in the middle of nowhere, have to do with Her Majesty the Queen?”

Mind you, I did not take Harry’s question as a commentary against British Imperialism. I suspect that Harry’s question had more to do with him dreading the idea of going to war than any anti-Imperialist sympathies. But once the story shifted toward the Sudan, the anti-British Imperialism messages came across in the following scenes:

*The Royal Cumbrians’ encounter with a Sudanese sniper
*Harry’s travels with the French slave trader and the latter’s “merchandise”
*Abou Fatma’s attempt to warn the Royal Cumbrians of an impending attack and his treatment at their hands
*Ethne’s regret over her rejection of Harry
*Harry and Abou’s conversations about the differences between Eastern and Western culture

Surprisingly, the European characters are not the only ones shown to be capable of bigotry. Abou Fatma has to deal with the Sudanese Arab soldiers who seemed offended by his presence, due to his kinship with the tribe that had served as slaves for the soldiers’ families and ancestors. Also, both Harry and Trench, along with other British and anti-Mahdist prisoners have to deal with the malevolent commander of the prison camp at Omdurman, Idris-Es-Saier, whose hatred toward them stemmed from the death of his family by British artillery.

As I had stated earlier, the 1939 version (which starred John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson) is considered to be the best version of Mason’s novel. I have seen the 1939 version and I must admit that I found it pretty damn enjoyable. As much as I found the 1939 version entertaining, I must admit that this latest version – directed by Shekhar Kapur – happens to be my favorite. Like the other versions of this tale, it is filled with exciting action and does an excellent job of recapturing both British and the Sudanese societies in the late nineteenth century, thanks to Allan Cameron’s production design, Ahmed Abounouom and Zack Grobler’s art direction and Robert Richardson’s photography. But for me, the movie proved to be more than simply a costumed adventure film. Thanks to the ”political correctness” slant provided by screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini and especially Shekhar Kapur’s direction; this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” seemed to have more emotional depth and ambiguity than other versions. Not only did Kapur and the two writers challenge the positive view on the British Empire, but also Western views on masculinity and Islamic cultures.

One of the biggest criticisms directed at this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” centered around the movie’s major action sequence – namely the Battle of Abu Klea. During the actual historical battle, which had been fought between January 16-18, 1885, the famous British square had been briefly broken by the Mahdists before it closed, forcing the latter to retreat. In the movie, the square formed by the Royal Cumbrians was permanently broken, resulting in the regiment’s retreat, Castleton’s death and Trench’s capture by Mahdists. In other words, the movie received criticism for not being historically accurate. The charge of historical inaccuracy does have validity. But I do find the critics’ accusations rather hypocritical, considering that hardly no one paid attention to the historical inaccuracy of another Kapur movie, namely the 1998 Academy Award nominated film, ”ELIZABETH”. I can only assume that it is easier to criticize a film that challenged Western culture for historical inaccuracy and ignore the same flaw in a film that celebrated a famous Western monarch.

Before I end this review, I want to say something about the performances. ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” possessed an excellent supporting cast that featured an entertaining Michael Sheen as the witty and extroverted William Trench, a competent Rupert Penry-Jones as the regiment’s finicky and slightly narrow-minded Tom Willoughby, and an excellent Deobia Oparei who portrayed the intimidating Idris-Es-Saier. Kris Marshall’s performance as the religious Edward “Vicar” Willoughby seemed pretty solid, but there were moments when I found it slightly overwrought. Wes Bentley portrayed Jack Durrance, Harry’s reserved best friend who was also in love with Ethne. I must admit that I found myself very impressed by Bentley’s performance. He did an excellent job of portraying a very intense character whose emotions were conveyed through his eyes and expressions. And as far as I am concerned, Djimon Hounsou could do no wrong in this movie. His portrayal of the enigmatic Abou Fatma was spot on. His performance could have easily become another example of one of those ”Magical Negro” roles in which a non-white character dispensed wisdom and comfort to the main white character. Yes, Fatma offered some advice and assistance to Harry Faversham. But thanks to Schiffer and Amini’s script and Hounson’s performance, Fatma became a more complicated character that ended up undergoing his own journey in becoming acquainted with someone from another culture.

Kate Hudson did an excellent job in portraying the spirited Ethne, Harry’s fiancée and the object of Jack’s desire. Hudson’s portrayal of Ethne was interesting and a little unexpected. I had expected her to react with anger over Harry’s lies about his resignation from the Army and fear over the opinions of society. I had expected her to form a closer friendship with Jack – a friendship that eventually led to their engagement. What I had not expected was for Ethne to express regret over her rejection of Harry. In this movie, Harry did not have to earn back her love through heroic acts in the Sudan. Interestingly, Ethne felt both guilt and self-disgust for worrying about how the rest of society would view Harry’s resignation and her association with him. I realize this is another example of the ”political correctness” found in the movie’s script. Frankly, I welcomed it. This slant made Ethne’s character a lot more interesting to me. And Hudson did a hell of a job with what was given to her.

We finally come to Heath Ledger’s performance as Harry Faversham, the disgraced Army officer who tried to find redemption in the Sudanese desert. The interesting thing about Harry’s character was that he truly was guilty of cowardice. Some of his cowardice centered on his lie to Ethne about his reason for leaving the Army. But for me, Harry’s worst act of cowardice occurred before the movie began. He buckled under pressure from society and especially his father, General Faversham, and joined the Royal Cumbrians as an officer. He allowed society, Ethne and his father to pressure him into assuming a life filled with lies. I suspect that Harry believed that as long as his regiment remained in England, he would have no problems maintaining the lie. But he could no longer maintain the lie when Colonel Hamilton announced the regiment’s deployment to the Sudan. The most interesting aspect about Harry’s journey was that he did not reach the nadir of his emotional journey until late into the film. The nadir did not happen when he received the white feathers from his friends and Ethne. Nor did it happened when he found himself stranded in the desert with nothing but a camel, when he discovered via Jack’s letters that the latter and Ethne had formed a deeper bond, or when he found himself in the Omdurman prison camp with Trench. No, Harry’s nadir finally arrived when he stripped away any civil façade of himself and he killed Idris-Es-Saier. At that moment, Harry’s true animal self – something that all human beings possessed – was finally revealed.

I must admit that I am curious over Ledger’s reputation as an actor before he did ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” (2005). I would be very surprised if it took his role as Ennis de Mar for critics to take his skills as an actor seriously. Quite frankly, I was very impressed by his performance as Harry Faversham. Both the script and Kapur’s direction gave Ledger the opportunity to reveal the full length of his character’s journey – from the self-satisfied, yet cowardly Army officer to the private gentleman who is not only more sure of himself, but more honest as well.

I wish I could say that Kapur’s version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” is for everyone. I suspect that it is not. If I must be brutally honest, I suspect that a good number of fans of the Mason’s story would be put off by the so-called ”revisionist”take on the story. They would probably prefer a version in which Harry Faversham learns to find his capacity for physical or military courage. Or a version in which the British victory over the Mahdist rebels are celebrated and the Empire appreciated. But as much as I like this version of Mason’s story – especially embodied in the 1939 film – I must admit that I much prefer this latest version directed by Shekhar Kapur. Not only did I find myself impressed by the cast’s performances, I found the movie more emotionally deep and complex. More importantly, it questioned the ideals and beliefs that had been the bulwark of 19th century and still harbor some influence upon many societies today.