[Screen It]


(2017) (Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young African-American attorney, whose mission is to defend innocent people who've been accused of crimes only because of their race, sets out to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
It's 1940 and Joseph Spell (STERLING K. BROWN), a middle-aged African-American chauffeur, has been accused of raping his white socialite employer, Eleanor Strubing (KATE HUDSON), in Bridgeport, Connecticut and then tossing her off a bridge into a body of water. Joseph has a checkered past, and thus prosecutor Lorin Willis (DAN STEVENS) believes he'll have an easy time persuading the jury in Judge Foster's (JAMES CROMWELL) courtroom of the man's guilt.

Not so sure is 32-year-old Thurgood Marshall (CHADWICK BOSEMAN), the star defense attorney for the NAACP who travels around the country defending innocent people accused of crimes solely based on their race, resulting in long stretches for his wife, Buster (KEESHA SHARP), to be at home by herself. The only problem is that Thurgood isn't approved to practice law in the state and through a series of strings pulled to make that work, insurance attorney Sam Friedman (JOSH GAD) is brought on as co-counsel just to get Thurgood into the courtroom.

But Judge Foster rules that while the outsider lawyer can remain on the team, he can't speak during the trial. All of which leaves Thurgood scrambling to get Sam -- who's never worked on a criminal case and will face the fallout of being a white Jew defending a black man in the conservative town -- up to speed to ensure that Joseph isn't railroaded simply due to the color of his skin.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I don't keep dibs on every famous person who's ever walked the face of Earth and whether they've had a movie made about them. But it is surprising when you learn that some notable people have been left off the cinematic adaptation list. That's particularly true since audiences generally seem to like biopics and both filmmakers and stars enjoy the challenge of recreating the person up on the screen and possibly reaping some Oscar rewards in the process.

I have no idea why it's taken so long for a big screen look at Thurgood Marshall, but we now have one in the simply titled "Marshall" where the increasingly visible and terrific actor Chadwick Boseman plays the legendary legal figure.

Yet, despite his career spanning fifty-nine years between winning his first case in front of the Supreme Court and eventually stepping down from his Associate Justice position on that highest federal court in the U.S., the filmmakers here -- director Reginald Hudlin and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff -- have opted to focus on just one case in his life.

And once again to probably everyone's surprise, it's not the pivotal and landmark Brown v. Board of Education case he argued and won back in 1954. Instead, it's a lesser case few have probably heard of, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell from the start of the previous decade.

That doesn't mean it wasn't important for those involved, and it certainly shined some light on racism in the north of that era, and parallels racial issues that still exist in today's world when it comes to how some African-Americans still don't receive equal rights treatment when it comes to the law.

Even so, for a film bearing the iconic legal figure's name and being the first where he's the focus, it's an interesting move. Granted, trying to cram his entire life (legal and personal) into a two-hour or so long movie would be difficult if not a downright injustice to the man and his work.

That aside, the question that remains is whether it works on its smaller scale level. Having sat through a press screening recently, I can say it does, and those involved have turned this into the sort of David v. Goliath underdog legal film that viewers seem to enjoy.

And Hudlin and company have made it even more accessible by adding layers of levity and sometimes straight-out comedy to lighten the tone of what's otherwise a fairly disturbing case of a man of color being railroaded for a crime he didn't commit -- raping a white woman, and a rich one at that -- in an era where that was essentially a figurative or literal death sentence.

Boseman plays the title character as a 32-year-old defense lawyer for the NAACP who travels around the country defending black folks who've been accused and thus charged with crimes they didn't commit, all due to the color of their skin. When he gets word about Joseph Spall (Sterling K. Brown) about to go on trial for allegedly raping his wealthy white employer (Kate Hudson), he heads to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend the man.

But not being registered to practice law there, he needs another lawyer to join him in the defense and that's where insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is called in. While he has no courtroom experience in criminal matters, he's present just to get Thurgood in the door. The judge (James Cromwell), however, has other plans, and while he allows the outside lawyer to remain on the team, he's forbidden from speaking during the trial. All of which means Friedman, a man who's faced his own racism as a Jewish man, has to take the lead in the trial.

All of which sort of steals the protagonist's thunder, and thus some of the film as well. While he's the mastermind behind the scenes -- and even during the trial furiously writing notes, making gestures and so on -- Gad's character suddenly ends up at the forefront.

That's bad for those wanting to see big pivotal legal moments from the title character, but it works for the film as it adds an unexpected layer of complexity to what's otherwise sort of the standard type of legal drama we've seen countless times before. And that might be the biggest rub for some viewers. While both timely and thus timeless in regard to such legal matters, the film ends up less powerful than the real-life man it's portraying. Had the pic been about any other defense lawyer -- real or fictitious -- the way things play out would have been more than satisfactory, if certainly familiar.

But considering the real figure behind the story as well as the comedy elements that have been inserted to make the tale and subject matter a bit easier to handle for everyday viewers, the result isn't exactly what one might be expecting. Decent enough but certainly not Oscar-worthy, "Marshall" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 4, 2017 / Posted October 13, 2017

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