Don’t look now, but Supreme Court justices are becoming popular culture avatars.
First, Ruth Bader Ginsburg transmogrified into the Notorious RBG and now a magnetic Chadwick Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall as a confident and charismatic young attorney buff enough to be an action hero in the energetic and audience friendly “Marshall.”
Directed by veteran Reginald Hudlin, “Marshall” shrewdly concentrates on a single highly dramatic case early in Marshall’s career when he was a kind of “Have Law Books, Will Travel” attorney for the struggling NAACP, criss-crossing the country with a briefcase full of legal tomes defending clients whose only crime was their race.
Hudlin, better known these days for his prolific TV work, has not directed a theatrical feature for many years, but he was clearly drawn to the Marshall project out of respect for the attorney who won the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case and in 1967 became the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.
But the director, whose forte is comedy, was not going to make a dry look at a great man. Instead, working from a script by Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff, he tells his story in crowd-pleasing broad strokes, in a sense crossing “Eyes on the Prize” and “Perry Mason” with some laughs thrown into the mix.
Star Boseman, with a “Black Panther” feature in his future, has made something of a career playing famous folks like Jackie Robinson (in “42”) and James Brown (in “Get on Up”). He’s introduced, muscular back to the camera, ironing his own shirt. But no matter how fit carrying around all those heavy law books has made him, this is a man not to be defined by his physique.
Nothing if not a passionate and committed advocate for equality under the law, Marshall, even at this early stage of his career, specialized in speaking truth to power. Unassailably confident, even cocky, he believes in taking charge and getting things done.
The year is 1941, Marshall is 32, and next on his agenda is a case in tony Greenwich, Conn., tailor-made for tabloid headlines, which it has been getting.
Wealthy white socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a Bryn Mawr graduate no less, has accused her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown), of raping and then trying to kill her.
But though newspapers tossed around phrases like “lurid orgy” and “night of horror,” the uneducated Spell insists to Marshall that he never touched the woman in question.