'Marshall' review: Thurgood's supreme trial

Chadwick Boseman plays a future Supreme Court Justice in a movie that focuses on his youth

At first, I thought "Marshall" was misnamed.

Why not call a biographical film about Thurgood Marshall simply "Thurgood"? That immediately brings a face to mind; "Marshall" could be anyone. (Heck, it could even be a prequel to "We Are Marshall.")

But in a way, it is the only title.

Because Thurgood Marshall demanded, and received, the sort of respect that doesn't come with a casual first name. And the word has other meanings - of military command, or gathering together and presiding over a multitude of facts.

And that he does here in a film which ultimately - unfortunately - chooses to worship rather than explore.

This is not a birth-to-death biopic, and for its central event it takes a curious focus; the 1941 trial of a black chauffeur for raping the wife of his white, Greenwich, Ct., boss. It was an important case for the black community, and a vital one for its defendant.

However, Marshall, an NAACP official and Maryland attorney, was not even allowed to argue it. Instead he sat, as silent co-counsel, while a Jewish lawyer, Sam Friedman tried it - albeit under, as dramatized here, Marshall's careful and constant control.

It's an odd lens to see its protagonist through, and sometimes an old and clouded one.

American movies have a longtime problem with stories about minorities; they always want to tell them through someone else's eyes, a pitfall even great films sometimes stumble into. So the Holocaust becomes Oskar Schindler's tale; the AIDS crisis, that of a straight, homophobic Philadelphia lawyer.

The problem is a bit more complicated in "Marshall," which first accepts that cliche, then overcompensates for it.

So yes, the story of the brilliant Thurgood Marshall becomes the story of a case a white man had to argue for him. But then the film tries to make up for it by making the Jewish lawyer a clumsy schlemiel and Marshall not just proud but absolutely rude.

In fact, from the moment Friedman picks up Marshall at the Bridgeport train station, Marshall treats him like a servant, telling him to fetch his bags. And their relationship barely changes, with Marshall berating and insulting Friedman throughout (although in real life Friedman was an accomplished lawyer who'd been in practice for more than a decade).

This serves the movie's guilty conscience, perhaps. Having made Marshall a supporting player in his own story, it can then "correct" it by turning the other man into near comic relief.

But it doesn't serve the drama. Is there nothing else to these men's relationship? No moment, after the day's work, when they share something more real? A story about equal justice under the law might be better served by more equality between its characters.

The film is chiefly held together by a strong performance by Chadwick Boseman, the actor who - after movie turns as Jackie Robinson and James Brown - seems to have become the biopic star of choice, this generation's Paul Muni. The Marshall he's given to play is a little one-note, true, but Boseman plays that note vigorously.

And while Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown are merely capable as Friedman and the accused, there's a second fine piece of acting turned in by Kate Hudson as the woman in question. If her scene on the stand reminds you of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and some testimony about a chifforobe - well, that's only natural. And intentional.

But Reginald Hudlin - a mostly TV-comedy director these days, who hasn't helmed a theatrical feature in more than a dozen years - brings very little to shots or staging. Music is often overused to tell us what to feel, and clumsy namedropping - "It's Zora Neale Hurston!" - substitutes for a sense of place and period.

"Marshall" is capable enough by the standards of a slightly out-of-date courtroom drama (even if it deliberately mangles many of the case's actual facts). It's a sadly still-topical reminder of the problems and prejudices that run through the justice system, and a somewhat awed tribute to the towering intellect of Thurgood Marshall.

If only it once let Thurgood step down from that lofty pedestal - and walk among us.

Ratings note: The film contains strong language, sexual situations and violence.

'Marshall' (PG-13) Open Road (118 min.) Directed by Reginald Hudlin. With Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson. Now playing in New York. TWO AND A HALF STARS

Stephen Whitty may be reached at stephenjwhitty@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwhitty. Find him on Facebook.

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Article 'Marshall' review: Thurgood's supreme trial compiled by www.nj.com