Monday, October 16, 2017

Have You Seen Him?, aka Marshall, On A Milk Carton

Chadwick Boseman as NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in Reginald Hudlin's courtroom drama "Marshall", which opened last Friday in the U.S. and Canada. 
Open Road

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, October 16, 2017

Reginald Hudlin's drama "Marshall" is the type of film I intensely dislike.  It shows the influence NAACP civil rights lawyer and first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had on Jewish litigator Sam Friedman but doesn't get substantive about Mr. Marshall himself.  The title character is but a mythical figure -- a frustratingly familiar aspect numerous films about Black people (including those directed by one or two Black directors) seem orchestrated to showcasing.  Chadwick Boseman has been the victim of this before: star in a film that its title says is about you but is actually about the white character who benefits because of you.  

It's pure poison -- Mr. Boseman played Jackie Robinson in "42" but that film was about the white male Major League Baseball franchise owner Branch Rickey, who signed Mr. Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.  "Marshall" should have been re-titled "Friedman", since Sam Friedman is the film's center.  Mr. Hudlin, a Black director ("House Party"), and Jewish (?) screenwriting brothers Michael and Jacob Koskoff keep Mr. Boseman's Marshall on the periphery, doing so by using the true story of Mr. Friedman (played with zeal by Josh Gad) successfully defending Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a Black man accused of raping Ellie Strubling (Kate Hudson), a white socialite.

"Marshall" is a tidy, polite and surface experience occasionally peppered with serious truths that inform the long, painful and bloody history of race and sex in America.  Mr. Hudlin's courtroom drama flaunts such a sunny, happy-go-lucky veneer that reveals about a rich white woman and a Black chauffeur deliver a hammer the rest of "Marshall" desperately needed.  After a barroom fight a Black man commands several white thugs: "Thurgood Marshall is an attorney and you will treat him with respect."  I asked myself: is that the criteria for respect?  That Thurgood Marshall is an attorney, so therefore respect him?  The film itself barely respects Marshall.  Shouldn't it be that you respect someone because he or she a human being?  Strange indeed.  It's that dreaded Trayvon Martin "perfect victim" syndrome.

I don't know about you, but when I see a movie poster with the word MARSHALL in big blood red letters and a man occupying its enitre frame, I expect to see a movie that focuses on the man in the movie poster.  I watched a fraudulent film instead.  A film missing the substance of its title character.  The "Marshall" movie poster is the reverse of album covers of the 1950s and 60s that displayed white people on the cover of Black musicians' work.

Mr. Brown and Ms. Hudson are in a different movie from everyone else -- and appear to take their tasks more seriously in living up to the realities of America in the 1940s (when the film takes place) and America now.  Watching "Marshall" feels like you're watching a battle between Mr. Hudlin (whose shots of paintings of enslavement adorn a courtroom) and the writers, who invest in stock cliches, tired cutesy one-liners and we are equals symbolism.  I think this is one of the very rare occasions where the writers won out over the director.  And Mr. Hudlin was among the producers (Paula Wagner is another.) 

The film's movie poster.  Open Road

What is missing in "Marshall" IS Marshall.  Mr. Boseman is charismatic, a presence the screen opens up to but Thurgood Marshall was all business, forthright, intrepid and highly successful, as the film's coda points out.  I wish the actor had transmitted more of these qualities in his portrayal.  The filmmakers however, are so busy "entertaining" us that the bulk of the actors in "Marshall" are confined by the emphasis on standard courtroom drama cardboard types: the curt, bitter judge (James Cromwell), the eager, sneering nail-'em-to-the-wall prosecutor (Dan Evans), the wronged accuser (Ms. Hudson, effective in a small role) and the fearful defendant (a muted Mr. Brown).

"Marshall" gives us equanimity in persecution but here we're more familiar with Mr. Friedman's tribulations and background than we are the title character's.  It's this okey-doke bait and switch I didn't deserve.  But I've seen that movie too.  Since Mr. Friedman is more a character of fiber than Mr. Marshall himself is, the latter is effectively an apparition, reduced to legal strategy whisperer and a life on the periphery.  Mr Boseman's character is a supporting character for the purposes of "Marhsall" not its lead.  All this is a curious spectacle, if not downright infuriating.

Most will probably find "Marshall" to be casual schoolbook material.  Mr. Hudlin offers little in the way of activist politics or powerful advocacy here, for the writers in choosing a solid true story use the wrong vehicle (or at least the wrong movie title) to effectuate their mission.  I saw a menagerie of stick figures on the big screen, and the Koskoffs overpack their script with famous Black figures to attain an authenticity many of their written words do not.  Simply put, "Marshall" needed more authentic melanin moments.  The entirety of Mr. Hudlin's film's main Blacks are a gay man (for one scene only), two principal women (onscreen for eight minutes combined) and the phantom "invisible" Marshall.

The specter of Mr. Boseman's Marshall at a "white only" drinking fountain late on is akin to an outtake, another cheap, empty bouquet in a movie purportedly aimed at telling the "live hard, fight harder" story its movie poster trumpets.  The image is hollow because most of "Marshall" is.  It shouldn't have been.  I felt lied to and manipulated.  The final scene, with three modern-day individuals many may recognize if they look closely, is a nice touch, but given all that has gone before in "Marshall" it is a touch cynical.

Also with: Keesha Sharp, Roger Guenveur Smith, Marina Squerciati, Ahna O'Reilly, Sophia Bush, Jussie Smollett, Rozonda Thomas, Barrett Doss, Derrick Baskin.

"Marshall" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.  The film's running time is one hour and 54 minutes.

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