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Marshall •••

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenplay: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Koskoff
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: October 13, 2017



Scott, can you marshall enough interest to review Chadwick Boseman’s latest film?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’m glad the law is on our side with the Marshall in town. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) in 1941. He’s the head lawyer with the NAACP and his boss has a new job for him. In a small town in the deep south a black man has been wrongly accused of the rape and attempted murder of a well-to-do white woman. Insurance fraud lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) has been tapped for the defense, but he’s never defended such a case before. And the court has ruled that Marshall cannot defend the defendant because he’s from out of state. So it’s up to Marshall to coach Friedman in the ways of criminal defense to save the life of an innocent man.

Marshall takes steps to give the defendant, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, fair and proper representation. But the deck is stacked against him. The judge (James Cromwell) is a personal friend of the prosecuting attorney’s father. Moreover, Friedman is less than thrilled to be involved in the case, as it could ruin his career and endanger his family. Slowly but surely, Marshall and Friedman uncover enough facts to undermine to case against Spell — but not without cost to themselves.

Scott, this film reminds me of Red Tails (2011) in that it tells a historical/biographical story worth telling, but with a lackluster script. Still, Marshall succeeds in relating a story of a black American who does not transform (as in 42) but instead transforms those around him. There are plot elements that don’t really go anywhere (Marshall’s wife is left alone to cope with a miscarriage) – but serve to show his devotion to his mission. I was very worried at the start of this film that the low-budget approach would not do the story justice. But performances by both Boseman and Gad save Marshall from being a campy period piece and instead deliver a powerful story of how far we’ve come in race relations and how far we yet have to go.

I agree, Greg. The hero of our story, Thurgood Marshall, serves as a transforming agent for others. His job is to change attitudes and win hearts, but most importantly, he’s there to win legal cases in the service of delivering racial justice. In this film, Marshall transforms two people specifically: his prosecuting attorney partner Sam Friedman, and the defendant Joseph Spell, whom he convinces to speak the truth and fight back. This movie drives home the point that many oppressed African-Americans feel utterly defeated and rarely fight a system that is rigged against them. Marshall empowers them in meaningful ways.

And speaking of ‘meaning’, perhaps my favorite line of dialogue in the movie occurs near the film’s conclusion, when Marshall is asked how he finds meaning while working on so many individual cases of racial injustice. His reply: “My job isn’t to put out fires. It’s to get rid of fire altogether.” This nice metaphor for racial prejudice underscores Marshall’s vision of the bigger picture. So we see that Marshall’s goal is not simply to transform Friedman and Spell, nor is it to merely exonerate Spell. His mission is to transform those of us in the audience at the theater thereby eliminating prejudice altogether.

Marshall is a flawed but well-thought-out biopic. Rather than trying to tell Marshall’s life story, they exemplify his accomplishments by focusing on one specific event. It’s enough to show us who Marshall was. One of the problems with the film is the overly dramatic nature of it. Many of the scenes seem right out of a 1940s gangster film. Likewise with the dialog. But I am glad the film was made and I found it enlightening. I give Marshall 3 out of 5 Reels.

Heroes don’t come better than Thurgood Marshall. He was fighting an uphill battle against all odds. His is called a ‘flat’ character arc in that he doesn’t change much in the telling of the story. But he changes those around him. I give Thurgood Marshall 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the transformations of those around Marshall are dramatic. Marshall converts an uninterested insurance fraud lawyer into a civil rights activist. He converts the opinions of the people of the town. He transforms Spell from a man with no hope to a man with honor. I give the transformations in Marshall 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

You’ve summed it up well, Greg. Marshall is unlikely to win any awards but it does effectively convey the daunting obstacles facing the NAACP and other pre-Civil Rights activists. Thurgood Marshall’s story inspires us to do the right thing and to work for justice event when laws and social forces seem hopelessly conspired against us. I agree that this film deserves a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

Marshall only gives us a thin slice of Marshall’s overall hero’s journey, but within this slice we do see him in a dangerous world through which he is able to navigate successfully. The journey isn’t easy, but our hero is able to win hearts and influence minds in the direction of racial justice. Marshall doesn’t transform but he sure does trigger a metamorphosis in two key characters and in society as a whole. I’ll give his hero’s journey a rating of 4 out of 5 and his transformative effect on others a rating of 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

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