A civil rights superhero movie? Why not? For a country so enamored with our national mythology, we are remarkably inconsistent when it comes to cinematic depictions of our historical figures. After all, many of our founding fathers owned slaves, and many more recent icons emerged at a time when personal shortcomings could not be as easily concealed. How can we be expected to rally behind a singular narrative when our own conception of history is considered divisive?
Director Reginald Hudlin provides the answer in Marshall, which sells itself as a biopic recounting an episode in the life of our country’s first black justice of the Supreme Court, but it can be more accurately described as a morality play on how to fight for truth and justice when doing so seems futile and may cost you your life or livelihood.
The story follows the Spell case, an actual event in which Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) stands trial for the rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), in Connecticut. Too many of the facts do not add up, so Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) arrives on behalf of the NAACP, his life dedicated to representing black defendants who are demonstrably facing accusations due to their race. Because Marshall is not a member of the Connecticut bar, he requires the endorsement of an in-state attorney. Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a tax attorney, provides that support yet is reluctant to get involved in a criminal case. However, Friedman is forced to represent Spell when the judge (James Cromwell) refuses to allow Marshall to speak in court.
PG-13, 118 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
There is the gambit: Friedman and Marshall must prove that the accusation is racially motivated, even though their team has been crippled by not allowing the more experienced civil rights attorney to speak. They must face down rape accusations without attempting to assassinate the character of a respected woman, or imply that this is a thing women routinely do. And they must not settle for any deal that would require an innocent man to admit guilt, even if it means losing the case.
There are a few elements in the film that might seem slightly too convenient in another story, but Hudlin and his cast pay close attention to the areas that matter most. Every performance is excellent, from the walk-ons to the leads. Brown is a revelation, and his portrayal of Spell has the potential to elevate him from critic favorite to household name. Gad explores a character we are not used to seeing from him, always wearing Friedman’s past and current predicament in his face, movements and intonations. The fact that he is Jewish means he is tolerated, but the moment he stands up to authority, bigotry emerges with a vengeance. Boseman’s Marshall is always one step ahead, always knows how to get out of a situation and always holds the moral high ground. This might have been irritating and even arrogant in a lesser film with a lesser actor, but this man has dedicated his life to pushing good people to go beyond their comfort zone while boxing bad people into a corner. This is his manner because it must be, as we often need a hero to show us what we are capable of.
Amazingly, Marshall balances modern sensibilities with historical accuracy. In a moment where we are pushing the world to believe women when they accuse another of sexual abuse, the film recognizes that at the time, black men were charged with rape for consensual sex with white women as a pretense for lynching. The fact that the story is set in Connecticut is also fascinating for a man who had challenged the Klan, as the more concealed brand of Northern racism provides its own set of challenges but is no less toxic. Marshall is a terrific film, not only for what it does right but for how much it is able to accomplish in a well-worn genre.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Battle of the Sexes, Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, The Foreigner, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Labyrinth, My Little Pony: The Movie
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
American Assassin, American Made, Blade Runner 2049, Flatliners, The Foreigner, Happy Death Day, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle,The Lego Ninjago Movie, The Mountain Between Us, My Little Pony: The Movie, Professor Marston & The Wonder Women
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Battle of the Sexes, Blade Runner 2049, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Mountain Between Us, Victoria and Abdul