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Film review: 'Marshall'

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There are generally two types of biopics: those that attempt to condense the entire life of a notable figure into a single film, and those that pick one specific incident to build a narrative around. “Marshall” is the latter, tackling a single chapter in the life of legal pioneer Thurgood Marshall.

The first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP, and the litigator who argued Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall’s towering career has no shortage of accomplishments that a film might highlight. So it’s odd that the makers of “Marshall” chose to focus on one of their subject’s lesser-known cases, one in which — due to a prejudiced judge’s decree — he wasn’t allowed to make the presenting arguments himself, forced instead to rely on a local lawyer, a Jewish man, with no previous criminal trial experience.

There’s a couple of explanations for the decision to make Thurgood Marshall into a co-star in his own film. The first is that the filmmakers wanted to tell a story about two people who come together to fight against oppression and overcome their mutual history of persecution. The other option is that there was simply a lack of confidence that white audiences would show up for a story about a black man without someone in the story who looks like them. I’d like to believe the reasoning is the former, but I’m dubious. And really, the answer is most likely a combination of the two.

Continuing his ongoing series of performances as great black Americans of history (previously playing James Brown in “Get On Up” and Jackie Robinson in “42”), Chadwick Boseman is charismatic and confident as Thurgood Marshall. As a lawyer for the NAACP, his job is to travel across the country, defending black Americans believed to be falsely accused of heinous crimes. This mission brings him to Connecticut — the film was actually shot in Buffalo, and it’s amusing to see its distinctive city hall building pop up, among other notable landmarks — where he takes on the case of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur accused of rape and attempted murder by his employer, a wealthy socialite named Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Marshall isn’t licensed to practice law in Connecticut, but rather than grant him the right to do so, the judge (James Cromwell) rules that Marshall must sit silently while a reluctant partner, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) — whose sole experience is with insurance cases — makes the arguments. Friedman doesn’t particularly want to get involved in the first place, and is uncomfortable with the notoriety a hot-button criminal case will bring to his practice (and wishing to avoid calling further attention to himself in a WASP-y community that already tends to view Jewish people with contempt). But Marshall needs him, and convinces him to stay on.

The odd-couple dynamic between the nervous Friedman and the swaggering Marshall makes the film equal parts law thriller and buddy movie. Director Reginald Hudlin (“Boomerang”) leans into this, opting for a lightly comedic tone in their scenes together. But this creates a wildly uneven quality, as those scenes feel a bit jarring next to the more dramatic courtroom sequences, where the more salacious details of the case are presented.

Boseman and Gad are fun to watch, and play off each other well. They’re an easy pair to root for, and with its easy, feel-good tone, “Marshall” is entertaining. Boseman is particularly strong, adding a bit of shading to a character that might have come off as simply a saint. But the story itself veers toward the overly simplistic, and with any nuance ironed out, the script (by father-and-son screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff) doesn’t offer us much insight into the man himself or his motivations. As a buddy flick, the film mostly succeeds, but as a tribute to an important figure in American history, it’s hard not to wish it were confident enough to trust him as a protagonist capable of carrying his own movie.

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