Marshall: Stunning courtroom drama

City Press review

Film: Marshall

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad

Directors: Charlie Bean, Bob Logan, Paul Fisher

Rating: 4/5

Slowly but surely, stories of black heroes and black tragedies are coming to light on the silver screen. We had the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures last year, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit earlier this year and now Marshall – a biographical courtroom drama.

Directed by comic writer, film director and producer Reginald Hudlin – who also produced Django Unchained – the film looks at Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer who became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

Marshall is most famous for winning the case that ended racial segregation in public schools in the US. He was also at the helm of many civil rights cases during his career, winning most of them. The film focuses on one in particular – the trial of a black man accused of rape and attempted murder of a white woman in Connecticut in 1940.

Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman, who will star as the Black Panther later this year) must team up with insurance lawyer Sam Friedman to fight for the innocence of the accused. As head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Marshall is convinced that his innocent client is the victim of the racial prejudices.

When the trial’s sitting judge rules that Marshall is not allowed to argue before his Bench, owing to his not being a licensed attorney in Connecticut, the inexperienced Friedman is forced to try the case – with Marshall as coach.

The film works because it never becomes too self-important, preachy or dark, despite a heavy subject matter.

Unlike Detroit, which was an exercise in the audience’s stamina, Hudlin injects enough bittersweet humour and jazzy nostalgia to keep it comfortable.

However, the film fails in some spots when characters turn into caricatures. In one scene, Marshall is confronted by three racists who want to beat him up with a baseball bat at a train station. While this type of man surely existed (and still does), the caricature of a “redneck racist” is stereotypical and sometimes misleading. Not all racists are redneck hillbillies and to paint them as such blinds one to other less obvious culprits – who may be liberal, schooled, well-dressed and seemingly unthreatening.

As far as courtroom dramas go, this one is engaging and satisfying. Moreover, it’s a well-directed and wonderfully acted look at one of the greatest and perhaps less known legal activists of the US.