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Marshall is named for Thurgood Marshall. Why isn’t he the movie’s protagonist?

The film is equal parts courtroom drama and buddy comedy about the future Supreme Court Justice.

Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman, and Sterling K. Brown in Marshall
Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman, and Sterling K. Brown in Marshall
Open Road Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Marshall takes its title from one of its main characters: Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), the future Supreme Court Justice who in the film is still a scrappy NAACP lawyer, traveling the country defending the rights of black Americans who find themselves on the receiving end of unjust prosecution.

The main problem with Marshall, unfortunately, is that the movie’s protagonist isn’t Thurgood Marshall at all. The young lawyer enters the story fully self-possessed and confident in both the rightness of his cause and the justness of insisting on his place in a society that would get rid of him, and everyone like him, if it could. The film is bookended by two important cases he argued: It begins with a staggering loss in Hugo, Oklahoma, and concludes as the young lawyer heads to Mississippi. And he remains a steady force of nature throughout the film.

But he isn’t its focus. The true protagonist of Marshall is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance lawyer in Connecticut who gets roped into helping on an explosive criminal case that touches off racial prejudices and discovers within himself a desire to fight for civil rights, too.

Presumably a movie called Friedman (or Friedman & Marshall, Esqs.) wouldn’t do quite as well at the cinema. But casting the movie as Marshall’s story — and then skimping on Marshall himself, one of the most interesting figures in US history — winds up skewing the film in ways that end up inadvertently denigrating the subject.

Marshall focuses on a lesser-known court case, with good intentions

Marshall’s problems, as well as its best features, stem from the case that father-and-son screenwriting team Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff chose to focus on. (The younger Koskoff, Jacob, is a relatively new screenwriter who worked on the 2015 version of Macbeth; his father Michael is a trial attorney.) The film centers on the 1941 case of The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, in which a wealthy, married white socialite named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) accused Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who worked in her household, of raping her, then driving her to a bridge and pushing her into the river.

This is, at least at first blush, a great case for the film to unpack. For one, it allows the screenwriters to emphasize that racism and prejudice against black people was not merely a “Southern problem.” The vitriol directed at Marshall by white people in the wealthy Connecticut town for merely existing, let alone daring to take Spell’s side, is swift and severe. When Friedman joins the case — first under duress, then with increasing enthusiasm — he becomes a target as well.

Josh Gad and Chadwick Boseman in Marshall
Josh Gad and Chadwick Boseman in Marshall.
Open Road Films

But it’s 1941, and anti-Semitism is running high too, especially among WASPs. So Friedman was already a target; his association with Marshall just made things worse. The film leans into this connection, drawing a potent line between the ways that “upstanding” and “decent” Americans spoke about their black and Jewish neighbors — and sometimes did much more than speak.

The case itself contains multitudes that speak to the state of division and prejudice that America was in at the time (and in an uncomfortably evident number of ways still is). Marshall agreed to take on Spell’s case because he was convinced that Spell was being treated unfairly because he was a black man. But Judge Foster (James Cromwell) refused to temporarily admit him to the Connecticut bar — despite the fact that Marshall had an impeccable track record as an attorney, having already argued before the US Supreme Court — saying that he could sit at the defense’s table, but only Friedman would be allowed to make verbal arguments.

Friedman was an insurance attorney who’d never argued outside a civil court, and he had to go up against an experienced and suave prosecutor, Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), with whom the jury already shared some affinity and trust just by virtue of his whiteness. (A scene in which Friedman and Marshall are thrown out of a club to which Willis belongs — but to which neither of them would ever be allowed to belong — is especially stark.)

These choices are good for the film. They challenge our conceptions as an audience. And while Connecticut v. Spell was an important case for Marshall’s career, it’s hardly what he’s best known for. That means that there’s a lot of suspense built into the story; the audience is less likely to know its outcome than a more high-profile case such as Brown v. Board of Education, which Marshall would argue more than a decade later.

Marshall tries, but doesn’t do justice to its subject

But good source material will only get you so far. Curiously, Marshall bounces around from being a straight-ahead courtroom drama to something like a buddy comedy, and the result feels mostly confused. Director Reginald Hudlin has had a long and impressive career as a director, writer, and producer, often of comedy — his breakout film was the 1990 cult comedy House Party.

At times this kind of works. The comedic flourishes (musical cues, one-liners, diagonal wipes from one scene to the next) take on a kind of grim cast next to the seriousness of the story and the pungent racist attitudes on display. The result is that the humor becomes increasingly less funny and the seriousness of the case, and what’s at stake, becomes more evident.

But it’s not totally clear that’s on purpose. Marshall also feels like it’s aping something it can’t quite pin down, with story beats that match any other courtroom drama even when they don’t feel quite credible. A scene in which a barroom fight and encounter with a woman lead Marshall to an epiphany about the case feels especially contrived, even if it really happened that way. And repeated flashback scenes come off feeling a bit amateurish, particularly when they keep us from being able to watch Brown (of This Is Us and The People vs. OJ Simpson), one of the most expressive actors working today, deliver his lines.

Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in Marshall
Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in Marshall.
Open Road Films

And, more important, the case itself makes it almost impossible to really get a grip on who Marshall himself was. The very nature of Judge Foster’s ruling means that Marshall doesn’t get to speak or argue in court, and the burden of the talking is all on Friedman. The potential illumination that could come from seeing the great legal mind of a young Thurgood Marshall at work is blunted and muted, and in the end, it feels like we’ve learned little to nothing about the man who would someday become America’s first black Supreme Court Justice.

That might not be such a big problem if the movie didn’t have those bookends suggesting an intention to help us understand Marshall. But with that setup, it feels unfocused and uncertain.

Too bad, because though Marshall has appeared (and occasionally been the subject of) a handful of TV shows and films, he still hasn’t gotten a good big-screen treatment, and it feels like he’s way past due. What we get of Marshall in Marshall is fascinating; if only there was more.

Marshall opens in the US on October 12.

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