'Marshall' is more of a thriller than a biopic (Review)

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October 12th 2017

Superheroes. It's a word that's thrown around lightly these days. We eagerly flock to movie theaters and our television screens to watch metahumans with extraordinary strength and abilities conquer the world. In everyday life and certainly throughout history, there have been real-life figures who've defeated evil and transformed the world. They have been pillars of change who've forced mankind to move forward — whether we were ready for it or not. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of those leaders.

When we receive our primary education, we (hopefully) learn about Justice Marshall and his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement — namely that he was the force behind Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools in the United States. However, Brown v. Board is nestled in the middle of an illustrious career, one that spanned nearly seven decades and helped reshape the world as we know it.

Reginald Hudlin's latest film Marshall follows the lawyer at 30-years-old just as his career was beginning to gain some traction. In 1941, Marshall was the sole lawyer for the NAACP. The United States was on the verge of entering World War II when Marshall was sent to Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (portrayed by Emmy- winner Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who was accused of raping his white employer (portrayed by Kate Hudson).

Though oddly cast, Chadwick Boseman slides on Marshall's fedora perfectly — capturing his cadence and arresting intellect as soon as the film starts rolling. Though the brown skinned Black Panther actor looks nothing like the 6-foot tan skinned Baltimore native, you believe him from the very minute he opens his mouth, from the way he enraptures the courtroom to his everyday encounters when confronting bigots and racists on the screen.

Despite his massive success and reputation, 1941 still presents its hardships and barriers for Marshall. Upon arriving in Connecticut from Harlem, he is forced to enlist the help of a young Jewish insurance lawyer named Sam Friedman (played by a very convincing Josh Gad) who would be content to simply just exist in the background of the WASP washed suburb where he lives and practices. The fantastic banter between Gad and Boseman is what kept the film elevated when it might otherwise flounder into ordinary.

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Wonderfully paced, Hudlin uses Boseman’s charm as Marshall as a catalyst to keep the film moving forward. However, the movie is not flawless. Despite the gorgeous costumes by Ruth E. Carter and a stunning set design grounding the audience in 1941 America with racism and Jim Crow bubbling at the service – Marshall does get a tad cheesy and fluffy at times. For example, cameos from TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli" Thomas and Jussie Smollett who portray Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes respectively pull the audience out of the story because of their uber visibility.

Marshall is more than a biopic — the film works well as a thriller. At the center of the narrative is a case about a Black man accused of raping a white woman, which is ominous and horrifying especially during the time period. And yet, Hudlin doesn’t just leave us there wrestling with what seems to be Spell’s inevitable fate. Instead, it’s the characters themselves that keep the film engaging despite the somewhat cheesy interjections and the horror of the era.

Like Boseman’s performance, Brown is astounding. Spell is imperfect — his Blackness in 1941 is just one of the many marks against him. He’s a deeply frightened man who is staring at down the barrel towards his own execution, with only Marshall and an ever-reluctant white man willing to help him. It’s not a place any of us could ever imagine being, and yet, Brown captures it perfectly.

Hudson is great here too. Without defining her as one way or another, the How to Lose A Guy In 10 Days alum’s Eleanor Strubing is a full and realized woman trapped by her own demons, unhappiness, and chains as a woman in 1940’s America.

Marshall isn’t exactly a marvel, but it's very good. Boseman is shrewd and self-aware as Marshall, a man way ahead of his time who refused to bow to the humiliating and demeaning levels of prejudice and racism. It’s an interesting film that gives a new perspective on the man who would change both our education system and our nation.

Marshall debuts in theaters Friday, Oct. 13.


Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

by Aramide A. Tinubu on October 12th 2017
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