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Movie review: 'Marshall' is engaging portrait of Supreme Court justice as self-assured young man

By: Alan Zilberman The Washington Post
October 12, 2017 Updated: October 12, 2017 at 4:10 am
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(L-r) Sam Friedman (Josh Gad); Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) and their client, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) in "Marshall." MUST CREDIT: Barry Wetcher, Open Road Films

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell, Dan Stevens; directed by Reginald Hudlin; 118 minutes; PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.

In the fact-based drama "Marshall" - a throwback to such courtroom-focused procedurals as "Witness for the Prosecution" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" - Thurgood Marshall is seen as something of a legal superhero. The late Supreme Court justice cuts a striking figure as he prepares to don his judicial robes before the film flashes back to the early 1940s, when, as a young attorney for the NAACP, he brought to the job an unwavering commitment to justice.

This oversimplified rendering, however, is complicated by the fact that the film is set in the Jim Crow era and centers on the case of a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Director Reginald Hudlin handles the story with enough finesse to make its details more thrilling than uneasy.

Chadwick Boseman plays the title character, a confident young attorney who heads wherever the NAACP sends him. When a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), is accused of sexual assault by his employer's wife, Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), Marshall's boss (Roger Guenveur Smith) assigns him to Spell's defense.

But before the trial can begin, there is a minor procedural delay: Because Marshall is not licensed to practice in Connecticut, another attorney (Josh Gad) must vouch for him. Gad's Sam Friedman is drafted for the hearing by a judge (James Cromwell), who arrives at an odd decision: The accused will be defended by Friedman, not Marshall, who although he may act as co-counsel, is not allowed to speak in court.

There are two concurrent stories that play out here, informing each other in ways both direct and subtle. The first involves the case itself, with Spell declaring his innocence and his lawyers preparing his defense. The second concerns the relationship between Spell's attorneys, each of whom resents the other and yet must work as part of a team. Hudlin takes the natural chemistry between Boseman and Gad - or the utter lack of it - and makes that work in the film's favor.

"Marshall" includes too many perfunctory biographical scenes that distract from the tale. Subplots about Marshall's relationship with writer Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and his marriage - which helps inform Marshall's legal strategy - offer little more than historical footnotes.

Despite simplistic moments and needless digressions, "Marshall" still makes for an engaging legal drama.

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