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‘Marshall’ review: First black Supreme Court justice gets mediocre biopic

The young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) takes a racially charged case defending a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) against his wealthy white employer (Kate Hudson).  (Credit: Open Road Films / Edelstein)

PLOT A look at the early career of the first black Supreme Court Justice.

CAST Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown

RATED PG-13 (mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language)

LENGTH 1:58

BOTTOM LINE It doesn’t fully do its subject justice.

Thurgood Marshall, the pioneering civil rights lawyer who argued Brown v. Board of Education and became the first black Supreme Court justice, deservedly receives the biopic treatment with “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hudlin. Chadwick Boseman once again tackles a legendary figure of American history as Marshall (he also inhabited Jackie Robinson and James Brown), when he was an NAACP lawyer in the 1940s, traveling from city to city representing clients who were likely accused of crimes because of their race.

For a film simply called “Marshall,” you do expect to get a wider slice of his life, which is relegated to on-screen text. In fact, he ultimately becomes an ensemble player in his own eponymous film. Set in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1941, the movie is centered on a rape case involving a Greenwich socialite, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), who accused her driver, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of sexual assault.

Pairing with Marshall is local insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who steps in to help the out-of-state Marshall get admitted, and ends up arguing the entire thing, when the tough Bridgeport judge (James Cromwell) only allows Marshall as counsel at the table — he’s not allowed to speak. So this is a courtroom drama that hamstrings the confident orator Marshall. He’s allowed one rousing speech, to reporters, so Gad gets the meatiest moments; he steals this whole movie right out from under Boseman.

“Marshall” is inspiring but fails its audience in the portrayal of the details of this controversial and provocative case. The film asks us immediately to not believe the alleged rape victim; our hero, Marshall, believes Spell when he says he didn’t do it. But the film muddies the waters with a series of unreliable flashbacks illustrating the various scenarios described by those involved — her version, his version and finally the truth. We don’t know who to believe, and the film doesn’t take enough care to establish the truth for the audience.

While Boseman is predictably terrific and Gad rises to the occasion, this is a formulaic courtroom drama. It rouses the audience but doesn’t feel fully earned. The great Thurgood Marshall biopic is yet to be made.

HERE COME THE JUDGES

“Marshall” explores the trials of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court. These four other movies also featured actors who had their day in the highest court in the land.

THE MAGNIFICENT YANKEE (1950) Louis Calhern was Oscar nominated for his portrayal of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in this biopic, which was a bigger hit with critics than at the box office.

FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (1981) Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh starred in this comedy about the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. After Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Justice in July 1981, Paramount opened the movie in August — six months ahead of its original release date.

THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993) Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington investigate a political conspiracy that involves the assassination of two Supreme Court justices in this film version of John Grisham’s bestseller. The verdict: With so much star power, how could it not be a hit?

AMISTAD (1997) The Supreme Court is the climactic setting for this story about slaves who are put on trial after they stage a mutiny and commandeer the titular ship. Former Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun portrayed Associate Justice Joseph Story.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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