"Marshall" -- ★ ★ ★ ˝
"Marshall" avoids the conventional biopic approach of covering the complete life arc of its main character, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Instead, this classically constructed, fact-based courtroom drama concentrates on a single court case, Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, in which a tough, young NAACP attorney defends a black chauffeur accused of the rape and attempted murder of the wife of his wealthy white employer.
Fleetly directed by Reginald Hudlin, this robustly unapologetic crowd-pleaser has been machined down to its narrative nubs. It's scary, funny, surprising and so tightly edited that, once the film starts, concession counter visits will not be on the docket.
The shrewd screenplay by Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff never tips us off that we're dealing with a future Supreme Court justice.
Here, Marshall, played with fiery drive by charismatic "42" star Chadwick Boseman (he played Jackie Robinson), is just an idealistic trial lawyer dispatched by the NAACP to provide justice to people falsely accused of crimes because of their race.
That's the key. Marshall will only take a case when his client is innocent of racially motivated charges.
He's not sure about this Connecticut case in which suspect Joseph Spell ("This is Us" star Sterling K. Brown) insists he did not rape wealthy socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) or throw her off a bridge to kill her.
Spell swears he's innocent. Marshall takes the case with severe reservations, which turn out to be well-founded.
To defend Spell, Marshall, an out-of-state lawyer, must use a local attorney to head the defense. What local lawyer in a primarily white community of Bridgeport, Connecticut. in 1940 would take this case?
Marshall finds his man in local civil attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a nervous Jewish lawyer with zero experience in criminal law.
The often comical mentor/protégé relationship between these men becomes as crucial to this movie as the trial itself.
Their working relationship becomes obvious the minute that the cocky, take-no-guff Marshall steps off the train and orders Friedman to grab his luggage. Marshall serves as the driving force for the defense, but he needs Friedman, who more than understands the evil of bigotry, to actually drive it.
In the courtroom, a stern, really white judge (the great James Cromwell, emanating tense authority) rules that as an assisting attorney, Marshall cannot speak during the trial.
Prosecutor Loren Willis ("Downton Abbey" star Dan Stevens, who has this weird knack for suggesting sleaze and tease) thinks he'll win the case, especially with the testimony from Eleanor detailing her assault in shocking detail.
"Marshall" fits nicely into the same category as other memorable race-based courtroom dramas such as "Loving" and even "To Kill a Mockingbird," although Marshall's patient wife, Buster (Keesha Sharp), and Eleanor's quietly sinister husband, John (Jeremy Bobb), feel underdeveloped, and numerous flashbacks of the crime scene diminish the film's integrity.
Hudlin, the unremarkable director of lighter fare such as "House Party" and "Ladies Man," proves to be smart and intuitive, allowing Boseman to be a fierce warrior of words in a battle that will predictably be accompanied by applause and cheers from audiences.
Marshall did not witness the verdict in the Connecticut case. He had already moved on to helping his next client.
Boseman has moved on as well. He'll be playing a different kind of superhero in Marvel's "Black Panther," opening in 2018.
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Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp
Directed by: Reginald Hudlin
Other: An Open Road Films release. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations, violence. 118 minutes