The opening film of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival was “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hutton. The film is a depiction of a case that NAACP lawyer and first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall took in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The 1941 case involved a charge of rape made by a prominent white socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Mrs. Strubing accused a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, “This Is Us”), of raping her and throwing her in a nearby river while she was bound and gagged.
Learning more about the background of famed attorney Thurgood Marshall in a fictional format was informative and entertaining. For instance, the supremely confident Marshall, when he arrives in Connecticut, tells the local attorney with whom he will have to work (Josh Gad of “The Book of Mormon” as Jewish attorney Sam Friedman) that he wanted to attend law school at the University of Maryland, which was very close to his home, but he was forced, instead, to attend the predominantly black Howard University, which was not close by at all. Marshall adds that he learned law well enough to later sue the University of Maryland. We also learn that Marshall argued cases before the Supreme Court 32 times and only lost 3. He won the Brown versus the Board of Education bill that opened schools to all races in 1954 and became the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967.
The cast includes Chadwick Boseman as Marshall, Sterling K. Brown as the accused chauffeur, Josh Gad as co-counsel, Kate Hudson as the rape victim, Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” as prosecuting attorney Loren Willis and Academy Award nominee James Cromwell (“Babe”) as Judge Foster. Keesha Sharp has a small role as Thurgood Marshall’s wife, Buster. Jussie Smollett of “Empire” is also cast in a small role as poet Langston Hughes, a classmate of Thurgood Marshall’s. His role seemed unnecessary and superfluous, to me, and made Marshall seem as though he were so single-mindedly fixed on civil rights that he makes a disparaging remark about Hughes not doing anything noteworthy with his life.
The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel was good, complete with vintage cars and clothing, and the music (Marcus Miller) added much to the production with a stirring song by Dianne Warren (“Up Where We Belong”) at the end, called “You Can’t Be Nothin’ if You Don’t Stand Up for Something.”
The script, written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff, had its moments, with lines like “Here in America our differences are not supposed to matter,” and (said to Marshall upon his arrival in Connecticut), “You have enough confidence for us all, misplaced as it may be.” Another good line was, “The only way to get through a bigot’s door is to break it down.” There is also the counseling of the accused by Marshall that Joseph Spell not take a plea deal, with the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court saying, “We aren’t slaves, ‘cause we rose up and fought and fought and fought.”
The woman sitting next to me brought up an interesting point when she repeated a line from the film (one that breaks the case wide open): “Men are men and women are women.”
As we discussed the film that had just ended, she said, “Does that mean that Harvey Weinstein’s actions are okay, because he was just being a man?”
I responded, “Yes, and does the line about bigotry mean that someone should be breaking down the door of the Oval Office right about now?”
We both wondered how accurate the portrayal of this early case was, and, just as we were discussing that, a disclaimer came onscreen mentioning that certain characters were composites, etc., etc., etc.
The Judge, played by James Cromwell, seemed too evil and prejudiced to be true to life. He basically hamstrings the defense at every opportunity and is blatantly unfair. His role was over the top.
I’ve been a big fan of Chadwick Boseman ever since he appeared as James Brown in the 2014 bio-pic “Get On Up.” I thought he should have received an Academy Award nomination for his work in that movie, but the release date was too early in the year and hurt his chances. (“Marshall” opens on Friday, October 13th.)
The co-stars all do adequate jobs, although Kate Hudson was underwhelming in her role.
The entire film made me think of the Oprah Winfrey 2013 film “The Butler” (billed as “Lee Daniel’s The Butler”) that starred Forest Whitaker as the long-serving black butler at the White House. There was an outcry that year about the lack of African American nominees amongst the Oscar nominees. Some actors were even boycotting the event. Since then, changes have occurred to make the Academy Awards more diverse (and less old and white).
When the outcry over “The Butler” arose, while recognizing that Forest Whitaker always does a credible job, I was not among those who felt he had been sadly overlooked by not being recognized with a nomination. In this film, aside from Chadwick Boseman’s role, I didn’t see any Academy Award-worthy work here, either. The film seemed very old-fashioned. I had the feeling I’d seen many just like it previously. It was not that fresh, original, or unique.
Overall, my reaction to the entire film, while positive, was “been there/seen that.”
Still, the issues raised are timely, especially now, and for that reason “Marshall” is worth seeing.