Don’t look now, but Supreme Court justices are becoming popular culture avatars.
First, Ruth Bader Ginsburg transmogrified into the Notorious RBG and now a magnetic Chadwick Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall as a confident and charismatic young attorney buff enough to be an action hero in the energetic and audience friendly “Marshall.”
Directed by veteran Reginald Hudlin, “Marshall” shrewdly concentrates on a single highly dramatic case early in Marshall’s career when he was a kind of “Have Law Books, Will Travel” attorney for the struggling NAACP, criss-crossing the country with a briefcase full of legal tomes defending clients whose only crime was their race.
Hudlin, better known these days for his prolific TV work, has not directed a theatrical feature for many years, but he was clearly drawn to the Marshall project out of respect for the attorney who won the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case and in 1967 became the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.
Star Boseman, with a “Black Panther” feature in his future, has made something of a career playing famous folks like Jackie Robinson (in “42”) and James Brown (in “Get on Up”). He’s introduced, muscular back to the camera, ironing his own shirt. But no matter how fit carrying around all those heavy law books has made him, this is a man not to be defined by his physique.
Nothing if not a passionate and committed advocate for equality under the law, Marshall, even at this early stage of his career, specialized in speaking truth to power. Unassailably confident, even cocky, he believes in taking charge and getting things done.
The year is 1941, Marshall is 32, and next on his agenda is a case in tony Greenwich, Conn., tailor-made for tabloid headlines, which it has been getting.
Wealthy white socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a Bryn Mawr graduate no less, has accused her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown), of raping and then trying to kill her.
But though newspapers tossed around phrases like “lurid orgy” and “night of horror,” the uneducated Spell insists to Marshall that he never touched the woman in question.
[‘Marshall’] is unwilling to let us leave the theater without reminding us that these battles are far from over.
The case is disturbing enough, however, to cause a wave of frightened people firing their black help. As his NAACP boss Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith) tells Marshall, “only 13 million Negroes are depending on you.”
Simultaneous with meeting Marshall we’re introduced to a very different kind of lawyer, Samuel Friedman, played by Josh Gad (seen earlier this year as Le Fou in “Beauty and the Beast”).
Overweight and overwrought, Jewish enough to have flanken for dinner and speak a smattering of Yiddish at home, Friedman does civil, not criminal, law, and he’s so good at it he makes old women in wheelchairs cry. Really.
But Marshall needs a local attorney to get him admitted to the Connecticut bar, and circumstances conspire to make Friedman that man. He hopes to be quickly rid of this case and return to anonymity, but it is not to be.
Judge Colin Foster (a welcome James Cromwell), an arrogant family friend of prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), rules that while Marshall can sit at the defense table, he will not be allowed to speak in the courtroom.
This means that the inexperienced Friedman will have to try the case, with lots of coaching from Marshall, which leads to both serious conflicts between the two men and enough buddy humor to give the film an unexpected “Odd Couple” sensibility.
“Marshall” also briefly samples the man’s private life, including his marriage to Buster (Keesha Sharp) and his friendship with Harlem literary figures like Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda Thomas).
Though “Marshall’s” script engages in a certain amount of fictionalizing, the basic outlines of this case, far-fetched and right out of Erle Stanley Gardner though some of it may seem, did actually take place.
And while the film is constructed from top to bottom for maximum popular entertainment, it is unwilling to let us leave the theater without reminding us that these battles are far from over.
Close to the end of the credits, the voice of the real Thurgood Marshall (who died in 1993) is heard on the soundtrack, talking about not taking civil rights gains for granted.
“There are movements by the different branches of this government that are set to push back,” he says, uncannily prophetic. “Only now it’s being done, you know, cleverly.”
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In general release