In the fact-based drama “Marshall” — a throwback to such courtroom-focused procedurals as “Witness for the Prosecution” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” — Thurgood Marshall is seen as something of a legal superhero. The late Supreme Court justice cuts a striking figure as he prepares to don his judicial robes before the film flashes back to the early 1940s, when, as a young attorney for the NAACP, he brought to the job an unwavering commitment to justice (and a willingness to get into bar brawls). This oversimplified rendering, however, is complicated by the fact that the film is set in the Jim Crow era and centers on the case of a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Director Reginald Hudlin handles the story with just enough finesse to make its details more thrilling than uneasy.
Chadwick Boseman plays the title character, a confident young attorney who heads wherever the NAACP sends him. When a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), is accused of sexual assault by his employer’s wife, Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), Marshall’s boss (Roger Guenveur Smith) assigns him to Spell’s defense. But before the trial can even begin, there is a minor procedural delay: Because Marshall is not licensed to practice in Connecticut, another attorney (Josh Gad) must vouch for him. Gad’s Sam Friedman is drafted for the hearing by a judge (James Cromwell), who arrives at an odd decision: The accused will be defended by Friedman, not Marshall, who although he may act as co-counsel, is not allowed to speak in court.
There are two concurrent stories that play out here, informing each other in ways both direct and subtle. The first involves the case itself, with Spell declaring his innocence and his lawyers preparing his defense. The second concerns the relationship between Spell’s two attorneys, each of whom resents the other and yet must work as part of a team. Hudlin takes the natural chemistry between Boseman and Gad — or the utter lack of it — and makes that work in the film’s favor. Although the men eventually arrive at a certain rapport — made plausible by the performers’ unforced acting styles — their eventual camaraderie still retains the awkwardness you would expect between a black man and a Jew forced to work together in lily-white Connecticut.
Their fight to prove Spell’s innocence entails some forensic investigation, but primarily relies on testimony, which Hudlin supplements with flashbacks that have been drained of color, creating a noirish aesthetic that deepens the lurid aspects of the case — a classic he said/she said scenario that puts Friedman in the awkward position of impugning Strubing’s integrity on the stand. That’s a tough needle to thread, as it risks coloring Strubing as a victim and Friedman as cruel. To its credit, the script (co-written by Jacob Koskoff and his father, lawyer Michael Koskoff) finds a solution to this problem through a morally complex series of events that involves two people worried about saving face. The scenes with Spell and Strubing, on the witness stand, are the best in the film.
“Marshall” includes too many perfunctory biographical scenes that distract from, rather than add to, the tale. Subplots about Marshall’s relationship with writer Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and his marriage — which helps inform Marshall’s legal strategy — offer little more than historical footnotes. Other characters are underdeveloped, including the prosecuting attorney, played as a churlish, smarmy bigot by Dan Stevens, who does what he can in a thankless role. For the most part, though, the cast of characters is complex and challenging.
Despite simplistic moments and needless digressions, “Marshall” still makes for an engaging legal drama that largely avoids giving its subject the Great Man treatment. Boseman plays Marshall as cocky and smart but with no inkling of the giant he would become. Many of us know about Thurgood Marshall because of the landmark case striking down school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education, which he argued before the Supreme Court. By avoiding his most famous case, while at the same time preserving history — and adding pulpy thrills — “Marshall” is more involving than any textbook or documentary could be.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains strong language, violence, sexual situations and rape. 118 minutes.