If comic-book superheroes get origin stories, why shouldn’t Supreme Court justices? With its punchy, one-word title, “Marshall” sounds like it might be our introduction to some kind of pulp enforcer, but is in fact the story of ambitious young civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall — who would go on to become the first African-American associate justice named to the highest court in the land — and one of his early cases. Reminiscent of the uphill battle Atticus Finch tries in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Connecticut v. Joseph Spell finds Marshall defending a terrified black chauffeur who stands accused of the rape and attempted murder of his white employer.
How appropriate then that the title role should go to Chadwick Boseman, the handsome, fast-rising star who has played heroes both real (Jackie Robinson in “42”) and imaginary (Black Panther in the upcoming Marvel film), and who balances the two in this performance, offsetting Marshall’s mythic stature as the chief counsel for the NAACP with those qualities that made him human, including a well-earned yet case-endangering ego and a commitment to his work that was tough on his marriage.
Director Reginald Hudlin (whose credits include “House Party,” “The Ladies Man” and exec producer duties on the last six NAACP Image Awards telecasts) is a stiff and not especially stylish director, but he has a smart take on this particular project: Rather than falling into the trap of blindly sanctifying Marshall based on his impressive list of future accomplishments, he treats him as a rich, three-dimensional character, encouraging Boseman to imagine him as Denzel Washington did Easy Rawlins in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” or the way Spencer Tracy brought depth to Henry Drummond in “Inherit the Wind.” By approaching Marshall as an idealistic young trial lawyer, the film stands on its own as a compelling courtroom drama, complete with surprising revelations — and while we hope things will go his way, this case could just as easily prove the one that motivated his future crusade (much as Finch failed to exonerate Tom Robinson in “Mockingbird”).
Part of the character’s hubris is his self-righteous insistence that he only defends innocent men, which leads him to overlook the flaws of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a not-entirely-reliable defendant whose word pales by comparison with that of his accuser, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, finding sympathy in a character who would destroy another man’s life to save her own reputation). Marshall’s cockiness is endearingly apparent from the moment he steps off the train in Bridgeport, Conn., ordering his white co-counsel, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), to carry his bags.
The relationship with Friedman — a Jewish insurance attorney whom the NAACP hired to argue the case in court — was one of the defining aspects of this trial, and one that isn’t necessarily reported in online accounts, which often fail to mention that the judge (James Cromwell, stern as ever) allowed Marshall to sit at the defense’s table but forbade him from speaking in court.
This was 1940, a dozen years before Marshall challenged segregation’s “separate but equal” premise in Brown v. Board of Education, and though the NAACP often focused its efforts on Southern states (their mission was “to defend people falsely accused of a crime because of their race”), this particular case reveals how such prejudice was rampant in the North as well. Not only had practically every white person in town already made up his or her mind against the defendant, Joseph Spell, but they were clearly threatened by the idea that a fancy black lawyer might travel all the way from New York to help an alleged rapist beat that rap — as if anyone in town was willing to take the case.
Though prone to many of the clichés we’ve come to expect from big-screen courtroom dramas — where the words “objection,” “overruled” and “sustained” take on a kind of mini-theatricality of their own — “Marshall” was written by father-son team Michael and Jacob Koskoff, of which the elder Michael is himself a Connecticut civil rights lawyer who knows a thing or two about the field. As such, he brings insight to the case that others might have overlooked, paying particular attention to the technical arrangement by which Friedman and Marshall found themselves in such a curious situation: The NAACP needed a local lawyer to enter the case, but never wagered that they would be blocked from having a voice in court. (In a telling detail, Marshall meets another marginalized African-American in town who passed the bar, but was denied a license to practice law in Connecticut on account of his race.)
Mismatched partners can always be relied upon to generate sparks on screen, and while “Marshall” may not be as elegant as last year’s “Loving” in its chronicle of a mid-century civil-rights victory, the tension between Boseman and Gad’s characters delivers an added dramatic hook. Concerned for his reputation, Friedman has reason to fear that trying such an unpopular case will destroy his legal career, and besides, he’s less than thrilled to be taking under-the-table orders from this out-of-town stranger.
But as a Jewish man in wartime America, Friedman’s own experience with anti-Semitism adds a natural point of empathy with his client. By the end of the trial, he has put total trust in Marshall, which Hudlin illustrates by intercutting between a night-before powwow in which Marshall dictates the closing argument and the courtroom itself, where Friedman imbues his partner’s words with a personal conviction all his own. True to history, Marshall didn’t stay to hear the verdict, but was reassigned to another case, like Batman being unable to attend a parade in his honor because duty calls once again — the sort of real-life superhero to whom audiences ought to look for inspiration.