If comic-book superheroes get origin stories, why shouldn’t Supreme Court justices? With its punchy, one-word title, “Marshall” sounds like it might be our introduction to some kind of pulp enforcer, but is in fact the story of ambitious young civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall — who would go on to become the first African-American associate justice named to the highest court in the land — and one of his early cases, reminiscent of the one Atticus Finch tries in “To Kill a Mockinbird,” in which a terrified black chauffeur stands accused of the rape and attempted murder of his white employer.
How appropriate then that the title role should go to Chadwick Boseman, the handsome, fast-rising star who has played heroes both real (Jackie Robinson in “42”) and imaginary (Black Panther in the upcoming Marvel film), and who balances the two in this performance, offsetting Marshall’s mythic stature as the chief counsel for the NAACP with those qualities that made him human, including a well-earned yet case-endangering ego and a commitment to his work that was tough on his marriage.
Director Reginald Hudlin (whose credits include “House Party,” “The Ladies Man” and exec producer duties on the last six NAACP Image Awards telecasts) is a stiff and not especially stylish director, but he has a smart take on this particular project: Rather than falling into the trap of blindly sanctifying Marshall based on his impressive his list of future accomplishments, he treats the character as a rich, three-dimensional character, the way Denzel Washington played Easy Rawlins in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” or Spencer Tracy brought depth to Henry Drummond in “Inherit the Wind.” By approaching Marshall as just another idealistic young trial lawyer, the film stands on its own as a compelling courtroom drama, complete with surprising revelations — and while we hope things will go his way, this case could just as easily prove the one that motivated his future crusade (much as Finch failed to exonerate Tom Robinson in “Mockingbird”).
Part of the character’s hubris is his self-righteous insistence that he only defends innocent men, which leads him to overlook the flaws of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a not-entirely-reliable defendant whose word pales by comparison with that of his accuser, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, finding sympathy in a character who would destroy another man’s life to save her own reputation). Marshall’s cockiness is endearingly apparent from the moment he steps off the train in Bridgeport, Conn., ordering his white co-counsel, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), to carry his bags.
The relationship with Friedman — a Jewish insurance attorney whom the NAACP hired to argue the case in court — was one of the defining aspects of this trial, and one that isn’t necessarily reported in online accounts, which often fail to mention that the judge (James Cromwell, stern as ever) allowed Marshall to sit at the defense’s table but forbade him from speaking in court.