Thurgood Marshall, a titan of 20th-century law and a civil rights pioneer, has until now largely eluded Hollywood’s notice. Despite its title, “Marshall,” too, is wary of taking on the Supreme Court justice in full, sticking to a minor case from Marshall’s early career as counsel for the NAACP. That makes, for better and worse, a sometimes slight, sometimes serious courtroom drama, shot through with bright certainty in the coming triumphs for Marshall and the civil rights movement. It’s a superhero-style origin story: Thurgood, pre- “Brown v. Board of Education,” pre-black robe.
And there’s something bulletproof about Marshall, as played by Chadwick Boseman, in Reginald Hudlin’s film. Boseman has launched himself as a leading man with an ambitious trio of historical African-American figures: Jackie Robinson, James Brown and now Marshall. His gift isn’t in connecting deeply to these characters but in capturing an innate and unstoppable swagger. His icons are forward-moving forces of talent and charisma that no bigotry could hope to contain.
In “Marshall,” the attorney is sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to represent a black chauffer, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who has been accused by his wealthy, white Greenwich socialite employer (Kate Hudson) of rape and attempted murder. Marshall, then 33, is an out-of-state attorney who needs a local lawyer to help try the case, turning to the reluctant insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad).
The suburban New England setting differs greatly from the Southern terrain where most civil-rights battles were fought, and where Marshall tried many of his early landmark cases. But it roils with much of the same racism. Marshall is barred from speaking in court by a judge (James Cromwell) little impressed by the NAACP’s mandate to ensure black defendants get a fair trial.
But from the moment Marshall breezes into the New Haven train station and hands his bags to Friedman to carry, he oozes an untroubled belief in his cause and his tactical prowess at trial. He needs no assistance, and he gives no quarter to prejudice, telling Friedman to object over every racial bias. Where others stay mum, he proudly declares from the courthouse steps:
“The Constitution was not written for us. We know that. But no matter what it takes, we’re going to make it work for us. From now on, we claim it as our own.”
He’s an undeniably empowering and inspirational figure, and “Marshall” is a smooth and straightforward package. That the stakes for justice are high is never in question, especially once Spell — and the extreme poise of Brown — takes the stand. But “Marshall” doesn’t go for the kind of gravity echoed, say, in the one-man play “Thurgood,” which James Earl Jones performed on the stage and Laurence Fishburne on the screen. There’s a light comic interplay between Boseman and Gad. Marshall sorts the case out without cracking a book or breaking a sweat.
And, well, Connecticut has never exactly had the dramatic pull of other, more explosive states when it comes to civil rights battles or, well, most anything else. Currently in development is a film adaptation of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner “Devil in the Grove,” which chronicles a 1949 case of Marshall’s in Groveland, Florida. That, perhaps, will be a richer, more evocative tale.
But not all civil-rights battles need to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. That will fall to future installments of Marshall’s exploits — and upcoming films for Boseman, who’ll soon star as the Marvel hero in “Black Panther.”
“Marshall,” an Open Road release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.” Running time: 118 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
“Last Flag Flying”, a comedy-drama about Vietnam war veterans, will resonate with Trump’s America, despite, or perhaps because of, its period setting, actor Bryan Cranston said on Sunday after a screening at the London Film Festival.
Set in the United States in December 2003 – when US forces in Iraq were dragging Saddam Hussein out of a “spider hole” – it is the story of three ageing former servicemen who reunite to bury the son of one of them who has been killed in action.
With President Donald Trump saying he could “totally destroy” North Korea and characterising a dinner with military commanders as “the calm before the storm”, Cranston said “Last Flag Flying” was a timely reminder of the effect on normal Americans of ill-advised military campaigns.
“I think it has a lot of relevance today in the sense that (today) it’s not clear cut as far as the (what are the) intentions of the government or military,” Cranston, acclaimed for his lead role in the TV drama “Breaking Bad”, told Reuters.
“In World War Two, it was the ‘good war’, it was clear and present danger, we had to stop this mad man. Since then, with Vietnam and Iraq, (there are) a lot of questions … among the troops and the citizens as to if we are doing the right thing and what is the purpose of our being there.”
“Last Flag Flying” was produced by Amazon Studios and directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, whose greatest critical acclaim has been for the naturalistic “Before Sunset” trilogy and the 2014 “Boyhood” which won a slew of Oscar nominations.
Linklater also made comedies including “School of Rock” and “Everybody Wants Some!!”, about skirt-chasing undergraduates. “Last Flag Flying” falls somewhere between the two genres.
The drama and comedy stem from the chemistry between the three leads, each played by a big Hollywood name.
Steve Carell is the awkward shy one who, we assume, was quiet and withdrawn even before the loss of his son. Cranston plays a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking bar owner who is his own best customer, and Laurence Fishburne, is a man who has found God and become an evangelical preacher, preferring to forget the sex and drugs they all indulged in back in ‘Nam.
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson said the film’s ability to honour the footsoldiers while being critical of the wars they are sent to fight, could hit “an Academy sweet spot, satisfying both the more conservative oldsters and the younger, leftier types.” (Agencies)
Other critics said “Last Flag Flying” lacked the light touch of Linklater’s best work. The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee called it “a half-baked TV movie masquerading as Oscarbait, a curious misstep for the Oscar-nominated indie auteur”. (Agencies)
By Jake Coyle