MARSHALL * * *
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson and James Cromwell. Screenplay by Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff. Directed by Reginald Hudlin.
Less a stodgy Great Man biopic and more of a brashly entertaining buddy-movie, director Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall avoids sprawling Oscarbait theatrics and leans into the pleasures of genre. Focusing on a lesser-known case from the future Supreme Court Justice’s early career, the film begins in 1940 when brilliant young Thurgood Marshall was the only lawyer for the NAACP, travelling the country arguing cases on behalf of black men accused of crimes they didn’t commit. He’s played by Chadwick Boseman as an impossibly cool, old-fashioned movie star — complete with a snazzy suit, endless cigarettes and an insouciant one-liner for every occasion. Thurgood’s even got his own funky piano theme that seems to follow him around on the soundtrack.
The idea of Justice Marshall as a swaggering black Bogart might sound a bit silly until you get a load of Boseman’s ridiculously charismatic performance, which is so effortlessly commanding that within minutes of meeting local co-counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) he’s got the guy carrying his bags for him. The actor previously played Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up, so now with Marshall it’s easy to joke that Boseman’s CV is turning into Black History Month, but also understandable because when you watch him onscreen you kinda wish he could play everybody.
Marshall arrives in Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) on trial for raping his employer’s wife (Kate Hudson), but the haughty, provincial judge (James Cromwell) refuses to admit this slick, out-of-town attorney. So Thurgood’s stuck passing notes, whispering strategies and staying up late at night coaching Gad’s fumbling insurance lawyer through his first criminal case. According to the movie Friedman got involved in this whole mess quite by accident, a bit of dramatic license that allows Boseman and Gad to develop a snappy adversarial chemistry while negotiating the investigation’s twists and turns. They’re an awful lot of fun together.
Director Reginald Hudlin spent a couple of decades in television following his House Party and Boomerang heyday, and Marshall has a slightly small-screen flavor, at times feeling like the pilot for an Amazon series I’d actually watch. (Newton Thomas Siegel’s cinematography goes for gauze over grit, with that awful milky sheen that’s sadly become the M.O. for period pieces shot on digital.) A distracting sequence set in Harlem awkwardly introduces Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston as Marshall’s contemporaries, but the movie is on much surer footing when it sticks to the meat-and-potatoes procedural satisfactions of two mismatched lawyers in over their heads.
The screenplay, by Jacob and Michael Koskoff, does a shrewd job of positioning Friedman’s Jewishness within this WASPy Connecticut community. “You’re practically one of us now,” Marshall ribs him, and it’s not for nothing that the film’s best scene comes when Boseman and Gad confront Dan Stevens’ oily D.A. at a restricted country club. It’s like something out of Beverly Hills Cop or a Lethal Weapon movie, and enjoyable enough to make me hope for a sequel in which Thurgood goes to Kansas.