In what seems to be an unspoken and common law of movie-making, the time in which we live determines the stories—especially the biopics—we are served up through the factory of Hollywood. In some recent examples, Hidden Figures (2016) arose as #blackgirlmagic and STEM made their way into public discourse; The Danish Girl (2015) made it to the screen as the rights and reality of transgender people became more and more urgent; and even Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) hit screens just as it felt (and still feels) like a new world war is knocking at our doors. It’s almost as if purveyors of film art are doing their best to remind us: We’ve been here before, don’t fuck it up this time.
The story is no different with Reginald Hudlin’s new film Marshall, which goes deep into one case argued, in this case silently, by Thurgood Marshall—a lawyer for the NAACP who would become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. If you’ve paid attention in history class (supposing that you were fortunate enough to go to a school unafraid to dip into the horrible history of America), the case Marshall is trying will sound familiar, as it has been all too common in the story of America—Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a rich white woman, has accused a black male employee (Sterling K. Brown) of rape, falsely . When we meet Thurgood, the NAACP has read about the case and is sending him to Connecticut to ensure a fair trial for Joseph Spell, the accused.
We meet Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) as he is arguing a different case in which yet another black American has been falsely accused of a crime. However, with the scales tipped in the favor of maintaining white supremacy, the case is lost. In parallel, we are introduced to Jewish insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) who is having a much better time denying settlements to old ladies. The two lawyers cross paths in Connecticut—Friedman as the begrudging local council counterpart to Marshall—as an unlikely legal duo. They set about trying to unravel the real story behind Strubing’s accusation while doing their best to ensure a fair trial for Joseph Sell.
Boseman and Gad work well together on screen in their off-beat rookie/mentor relationship. Gad tones down his typically over-the-top presence to match the refined confidence of the film’s tone, and more importantly, lets Boseman’s understated charm do its work. Well-paced and well-costumed, Marshall gives the audience plenty of what it wants: engrossing courtroom action, a handsome and wry male lead in Boseman, and, in the end, justice (not a spoiler, this is history).
But Marshall is also full what audiences, at least white ones, might not want but absolutely need. The movie is a two-hour reminder that our country is built on racism and the subjugation of other human beings for our own purposes. This history has a long tail that will never dissipate. For all the good humor of Marshall—and from the music to the comedic beats, it is brimming with a friendliness that caught me off guard for the subject matter—it is still a solemn, albeit palatable, reminder that African-Americans are doing hard work to clean up the mess white people made, are still making to this day.