In this time of intensifying, acrimonious racial division, maybe what we could all use is an old-fashioned courtroom drama that extols the virtues of justice and equality. Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall” is reminiscent of such classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) with a touch of the odd-couple detective story in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967).
Based on one of the early cases taken up by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall when he was working for the NAACP, the film proceeds without much subtlety, though with a filigree of witty dialogue and Chadwick Boseman’s panache as the wry, natty young attorney. But not every cinematic argument needs to be subtle when the values defended are so fundamentally American.
In 1941, after defending a falsely accused black man at a trial that was met with white anger (and gunfire) in the Deep South, Marshall heads north to tony Greenwich, Conn. There Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a white woman married to a prominent businessman, has claimed that her chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, evoking Brock Peters in “Mockingbird”), raped and attempted to murder her. Meanwhile, in contrast to Marshall’s activism, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad in a nuanced performance), who has been enlisted as Marshall’s co-counsel, is shown in court helping an insurance company beat a claim by an old woman in a wheelchair.
Friedman is at first reluctant to participate in the case because it might ruin his business and disrupt his already shaky status as a Jew in a Brahmin-like community. Moreover, he has had no experience in a criminal trial and (shades of the Chicago Seven) Marshall has been forbidden by the judge (James Cromwell) to speak during the proceedings. So Friedman must handle the case while directed by Marshall’s notes and whispers. Perhaps because of this awkward arrangement, and because they recognize that they are both members of a persecuted minority (Friedman has family members in Nazi-occupied Poland), the two develop a convincing, sometimes comic chemistry.
More problematic for Hudlin is the nature of the case — only by proving that a rape victim is a liar can Friedman and Marshall win an acquittal for their client. Fortunately, the case (in the film, if not in real life) is resolved in such a way that racism and misogyny are found equally guilty.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Written by Jake Koskoff and Michael Koskoff. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 118 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic content, sexuality, violence, and some strong language).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.