Hudlin’s “Marshall” possesses an indistinguishable moral arcs
November 2, 2017
With a pair of loveable underdogs pitted against the forces of injustice, Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall” has all the enthralling characteristics of a good superhero film without the flashy costumes or tired cliches. Instead, the well-executed biopic tells the true story of Thurgood Marshall and his essential role in the case of The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.
As a devoted NAACP lawyer and, eventually, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrated a keen understanding of the law and a tireless commitment to advancing civil rights. From the 1940s to the 1960s, he argued a grand total of 32 cases before the court and won all but three.
Boseman’s portrayal of Marshall makes it easy to see how the young lawyer might have led such a remarkably successful career. In fact, if the real Marshall was any bit as calm, confident and candid as his actor, it’s hard to imagine how he lost any cases at all. Marshall’s widow, Cecilia Marshall, weighed in on the historical accuracy of Boseman’s portrayal, mentioning that she enjoyed the movie overall but observed one subtle inaccuracy:
“[Boseman] is a very good-looking man, but he’s not as handsome as my husband was.”
Though Boseman may not have the dashing good looks Ms. Marshall expected, the movie continues to build its superhero-esque appeal through a classic case of good versus evil.
Marshall finds himself in an uphill battle when he is assigned to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), an African-American chauffeur, against the false charge of rape invoked by Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy white woman for whom Spell works. The real catch, however, is that since Marshall is an out of state lawyer, he must enlist the help of another attorney, and is forbidden from speaking in court. Enter: Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), whose character functions as an awkward yet endearing sidekick.
While Boseman and Gad are reasonably convincing in their roles, both are outshined by Brown’s powerful and authentic performance. Although he doesn’t speak often, Brown’s body language and facial expressions are magnetically raw and earnest. His lips quiver with just the right intensity, and his muscles tense at precisely the right moments. During the courtroom hearing, Brown masters the art of appearing to struggle just enough with mustering a respectable degree of composure, leading the audience to collapse in empathy for his character. His honest eyes reveal a pain and transparency that pierce the hearts of both the jury in the film as well as those observing Brown on screen.
Through devoting such thorough attention to characterizing the primary figures in this singular case, Hudlin builds a potent storyline and keeps viewers engaged from start to finish. Before watching the film, I expected it to focus on Marshall’s most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled that state laws establishing segregated public schools were unconstitutional. However, after viewing the film, I’m convinced that Hudlin’s decision to tell Spell’s story was a wise one.
By focusing solely on the case of Brown, Hudlin would have risked dramatizing and memorializing a controversy that is still very much alive. The apparent victory realized in Brown is frequently misunderstood, and the audience would not have the same sense of relief at the end of the film knowing segregated schooling is something many communities are still fighting against today.
While many elements of racism exposed in Spell are also present, living issues persisting in our contemporary time, the case is more contained than Brown and more easily digestible for audiences. Hudlin’s decision to focus on Spell is also a timely one, as conversations regarding white feminism and the potentially lethal role white women play in perpetuating racial inequality are beginning to find ground in our communal discourse.
By condensing the timeline and focusing on just one episode of Marshall’s life, Hudlin allows the audience to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the main characters. This gives viewers a greater insight into who Marshall was, not just what he did.
While he may not have possessed the mystical powers of your typical superhero, Marshall’s raw intellect, daring confidence and ardent commitment to justice sure could have you fooled.
Contact Sarah Tarter at starter@ scu.edu or call (408) 554-4852.