'Marshall': Supreme Court lion gets a stirring legal drama in his honor

I don’t know if Chadwick Boseman can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but the superman of biopics certainly has a knack for towering figures.

Jackie Robinson, Godfather of Soul James Brown, and now Thurgood Marshall, the crusading civil rights attorney and first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. Marshall, though, is not precisely a biopic – it concentrates strictly on an early episode in Marshall’s career, when he was a barnstorming soloist for the NAACP, sent throughout the country to represent defendants whose cases could expose racial bias in the legal system — the more sensational, the better.

In 1940, he becomes involved in one of the most intensively (and salaciously) publicized trials of its time — a wealthy white socialite Ellie Strubing (Kate Hudson) had accused her black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) of kidnap and rape, a case that was tried before an all-white jury.

Director Reginald Hudlin comes from comedy, and he imbues Marshall with the energy and pace of a jaunty and, at times, even lighthearted picture, set to uptempo, era-appropriate music, and decorated with lavish period fashion (Marshall was a snappy dresser). Opening frames are designed to take Marshall off his pedestal and present him as a young (he was 32 at the time) and vibrant fellow — drinking martinis at a Harlem club, chatting with Langston Hughes, toasting Zora Neale Hurston. Later there’s a bar fight, suggesting if Marshall hadn’t made the Supreme Court, he could have been a highly ranked middleweight.

Then it’s off to Greenwich, Conn., where he and a local white lawyer named Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad) try the case. It’s by no means a cakewalk. The accuser is wealthy and powerful, the accused is poor and possessed of a checkered past — a family he abandoned, a dishonorable army discharge, a previous arrest. To complicate matters, the gruff judge (James Cromwell) doesn’t want Marshall in his courtroom, and bars him from speaking during the trial.

That aspect of the story is true, just as it’s true that Ellie Strubing was a Philadelphia native, from an upper-crust family (her father was a prominent figure on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange). Some other aspects of the fact-based story have been altered to add dramatic flair.

The real Friedman (who became a prominent civil rights attorney himself) was no slouch in the courtroom, but Gad (surprise) often plays Friedman broadly, serving as a bumbling comic foil to Marshall, whose keen legal mind and valor in the face of racist taunts are the movie’s focus.

Hudlin plays up differences to heighten conflict between the two men, later smoothed over as Friedman, a Jewish immigrant, and Marshall realize they have some things in common, and certainly a common enemy in elitist prosecutor Dan Willis (Dan Stevens) and the stacked-deck justice system he represents.

Marshall overcomes some early stiffness and flat-footed storytelling and evolves into an engaging courtroom drama, where witness-stand theatrics and Perry Mason flourishes give the movie needed narrative momentum.

There are legitimately stirring moments as well. When Marshall, speaking for black America, vows to make the U.S. Constitution “our own,” he does just that.

MOVIES

Marshall

    • Directed by Reginald Hudlin. With Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson and Dan Stevens. Distributed by Open Road Films.

    • Parents guide: PG-13 (violence)

  • Running time:  1 hour, 58 mins.
  • Playing at: Area theaters.