Chadwick Boseman is cornering the market on playing hugely influential African-Americans in mediocre biopics.
In 2013’s “42,” Boseman played Jackie Robinson and the next year he took on James Brown in “Get On Up.” Neither movie made much of a dent; both were hobbled by scripts that failed to encapsulate the hugely important lives of its subjects and their impact on the culture at large.
Now comes “Marshall,” the story of Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first African-American justice. The film casts Boseman as Marshall, a hotshot young attorney arguing cases for the NAACP, well before he joins the Supreme Court. But the movie gets tripped up on its own robe, throwing Marshall into a typical courtroom drama that plays out like an extended episode of “Law & Order,” with no real sense for Marshall or what made him tick. Justice toward Marshall is not served.
The story starts in 1941 and Marshall is already a boss, an attorney in his early 30s with a swagger in his step and a fire in his belly. “Marshall” sidesteps backstory — by the time we meet him, Marshall has argued and won his first case before the Supreme Court — and asks viewers to dive right in.
That’s no problem, since Boseman plays Marshall as a smart, cocky, gifted and charming young lawyer. He’s almost like a comic book character, SuperLawyer, and you can see “Marshall” as one episode in a volume of serialized court cases. Heck, at the end of this one, he’s already jetting off to the next place that needs him; all he needs is a cape and a mask and he’s ready to go.
The case he’s fighting is a sordid tale of a wealthy, privileged white woman (Kate Hudson) in Connecticut who accuses her black servant (Sterling K. Brown) of tying her up and raping her. (The movie is based on a true story.) But it doesn’t take long for it to fall into familiar courtroom procedural patterns, as well as bland, over-generalized characterizations of its supporting players (including James Cromwell as the subtly racist judge and Dan Stevens as the subtly racist prosecuting attorney).
Josh Gad is Marshall’s reluctant trial partner, an insurance lawyer in over his head in the case. But after Judge Foster (Cromwell) bars Marshall from speaking in court — he hangs his ruling on Marshall not being bar-certified in the state of Connecticut — Marshall can only participate in the trial by writing notes to his partner.
A case for SuperLawyer, indeed. The script by father-son duo Michael and Jacob Koskoff (Michael worked civil rights cases within the Connecticut judicial system) is well-heeled in the beats and rhythms of Hollywood courtroom drama and is built for audience-pleasing “ooh!” and “aah!” moments.
It’s less effective at painting a portrait of Marshall; it’s not so much his story as it is the story of a trial in which Marshall happened to be a player. The film introduces intolerance and hatred as a hurdle for Marshall and Gad’s character (who is Jewish), but it doesn’t roll up its sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of the issues. It’s all surface-level.
Helmed by seasoned TV director Reginald Hudlin (who also made “House Party” and “Boomerang”), “Marshall” has a spirited energy until it falls victim to trashy cliches in its final act. And you have to think there are better ways to tell the story of Marshall, his life and his climb to the land’s highest court, but those details are left to post-script notes.
You could learn more about Marshall from reading his Wikipedia page.
Boseman has another superhero under his belt — his “Black Panther” opens in February — and hopefully that one fares better than this. “Marshall,” however, is a wasted opportunity to tell the life of a real-life superman.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language
Running time: 118 minutes