Friday, 29 December 2017

REASONABLE DOUBT: Stirringly told and strongly acted, Marshall tackles racism and social injustice

GET UP, STAND UP: Boseman (centre), Gad and Brown in a scene from the captivating period drama.

MARSHALL is not an easy film to sit through. An unflinching meditation on prejudices, segregation and the fight for racial equality in civil-rights era America, the film raises important questions about how far the world has come since those horrible days.

On the upside, it sheds light on the selfless, pioneering efforts of the film’s titular hero, Thurgood Marshall, the esteemed barrister and African-American stalwart whose work with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) helped to slowly erode colour barriers. More to the point, he fought for the exoneration of countless Blacks imprisoned or charged with heinous crimes largely because of the colour of their skin.

In Marshall, well-paced by director Reginald Hudlin, this heroic patriarch is played with just the right blend of charisma and confidence, vigour and verve, by Chadwick Boseman, who won acclaim a few years ago for portraying yet another larger-than-life Black figure – baseball giant Jackie Robinson in 42

As Marshall, Boseman gets to the heart of a man whose relentless determination to see justice prevail supersedes all else. 

In the film, reportedly based on true events and penned by the screenwriting duo of Michael and Jacob Koskoff, the NAACP stalwart finds one of his toughest, most complex cases in The State of Connecticut vs. Joseph Spell. Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is a middle-aged former army man who gets accused of the rape, assault and attempted murder of his white employer, the socialite Ellie Strubing (Kate Hudson). Is Spell an innocent man? Has he been set up? 

“I never touched that woman,” he tells Marshall with utter conviction. 

When the case goes to trial, steely presiding judge Karl Foster (James Cromwell) prohibits Marshall from speaking in court. (He’s not a member of the Connecticut bar.) So most of the courtroom heavy lifting falls to his partner Sam Friedman (Josh Gad, superb), who specializes in small cases and fears that this high-profile matter will ruin him. 

Jury selection, foot-soldier investigations and attorney-client meetings set the stage for a legal battle that captures daily front-page headlines. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) play the snarky prosecutor Loren Willis, who wastes little time ripping Spell’s character to shreds while presenting his client as the aggrieved victim who narrowly escaped death. Marshall and Friedman have their work cut out for them to prove to the court, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Spell did not commit the brutal crime he is being accused of. 

Boseman and Gad share an appealing on-screen chemistry even when they don’t see eye to eye, and Hudlin expertly ratchets up the film’s dramatic intensity, even while capturing the flare-up of violence and public backlash that the case generates. But even in the face of threats against his life and personal losses (his wife, Buster, suffers a miscarriage), Marshall manages to never lose focus.

Holding up a mirror to a society ravaged by racism and social injustice (and zooming in on a case where one man’s life is on the line), Marshall wades into difficult and disturbing territory but emerges as a strongly acted and stirringly told film. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+

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