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With: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Sophia Bush, Jussie Smollett, Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas
Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Koskoff
Directed by: Reginald Hudlin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language
Running Time: 118
Date: 10/12/2017

Marshall (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Thurgood Will

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Reginald Hudlin's Marshall is, simply, an important film as well as an entertaining one.

Its subject, Thurgood Marshall, became the first African-American supreme court justice, yet Marshall focuses entirely on an early event in his career, a crucial 1940s court case.

We can count on one hand the number of biopics about great African-Americans actually directed by African-Americans, Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Ava Duvernay's Selma included.

Along with Lee, Hudlin was part of an amazing movement of African-American filmmakers in the early 1990s, making his debut with the comedy House Party, and following it up with an attempt at a more mature Eddie Murphy comedy, Boomerang.

His career petered out with critically-panned flops like The Ladies Man and Serving Sara. He has worked steadily in television and now returns to the big screen with plenty to prove.

He did not throw away his shot.

Chadwick Boseman plays Marshall, and it's a great choice, despite the fact that Boseman had already appeared in two other recent biopics. His Thurgood is more human than the heroic Jackie Robinson in 42 and more interesting than the arrogant James Brown in Get On Up.

Working as a trial lawyer for the NAACP, Marshall is sent to Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black man working as a chauffeur and accused of raping his employer, a white woman, Eleanor Sturbing (Kate Hudson).

Marshall enlists the aid of local Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who has only handled insurance claims and no criminal cases. If they lose, it could mean the end of the NAACP.

Gad and Boseman are both excellent, and they form a believable bond. Friedman never becomes the default lead to soothe white audiences, but neither is he background wallpaper; he has his own struggles.

Meanwhile, Marshall is allowed to be doubtful, exhausted, and flawed. When a white judge (James Cromwell) orders that he not be allowed to speak during the trial, his sense of impotence and outrage comes through in a universal way.

Additionally, Brown's character is surprisingly rounded, and the recent Emmy-winner is terrific in the role. Even a galvanized American classic like To Kill a Mockingbird couldn't manage a three-dimensional portrait of the black man on trial; in that film, he's not much more than a symbol.

Yet, like Mockingbird, Marshall is not flashy or artsy, but it has a crisp, workmanlike flow. It stays in the moment, very simply concentrating on balanced, organic, effective storytelling. There is no pandering or patronizing.

Many biopics make the mistake of dropping in moments of enlightenment, pointing towards the character's bright future, as if the origin of a man's life can happen in one magical instant.

Marshall is not concerned with this; it provides a few factoids during the closing credits, but otherwise, it's structured not unlike John Ford's masterpiece Young Mr. Lincoln. It's a courtroom drama, a pure entertainment, wherein nothing more than behavior and character provide the seeds of greatness.

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