One of the most common criticisms against Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is that it’s a shame for so visceral a piece of agit-docudrama to nosedive in the final reel with a staid courtroom sequence. But that charge doesn’t fully take into account the potentially devastating impact that the exoneration of the film’s unambigiously evil 1960s police officers has in a Blue Lives Matter-touting America, circa 2017. Conversely, Marshall—a biopic in miniature that shows Thurgood Marshall, the first black person named to the U.S. Supreme Court, as his star rises trying cases for the NAACP—is a baldly populist gesture, aimed at reminding its audience that there are always exceptions to the crypto-fascist rule. And as it positions its namesake as a faultless rabble-rouser, the film similarly embraces its own blunt conviction. Is it out to win anyone’s heart and mind? No, and the most depressing thing about the film is its vague insinuation that the moment for doing just that long ago passed.
Marshall opens in 1939, crosscutting its way into a mission statement. Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is in the midst of losing a slam-dunk case in which he knows he’s in the right; the NAACP has made it a point, he says, to only take on clients that they’re completely assured are innocent of all charges. At the same time, insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is winning a case over which, to judge by the cutaway shots of a weeping, wheelchair-bound senior citizen, he knows he’s in the wrong, chalking up another score for the predatory free market. In one sweeping gesture, director Reginald Hudlin and father-son scripters Michael and Jacob Koskoff establish a justice system that exploits the underprivileged and rewards capitalism. And the exposition matter-of-factly depicts a black lawyer defending a black client losing, and a white lawyer defending white clients winning.
Marshall is assigned to the case of Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a Connecticut socialite who claims that she was raped and nearly killed by her chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown). Friedman is recruited to pass the case along to Marshall, but the trial judge (James Cromwell) refuses to allow it, dumping litigation duties into the very unwilling Friedman’s lap as an equally unwilling Marshall is made to sit mute in the courtroom. To Marshall, racism is just as pervasive in the North; it’s just pushed more neatly into the folds of civility. And when the firebrand lawyer’s incendiary comments to the local press draw flocks of sign-wielding racists to the courthouse steps, he smirks to Friedman, “At least now they’re in the open where we can see them.”
That’s not, however, what Marshall itself believes or shows. Hudlin pointedly films the small city where Spell’s trial is set in a manner that makes its differences from the Southern locales more often utilized for similar period pieces functionally negligible. In addition to Cromwell’s albino-toned authoritarianism on the bench, prosecuting attorney Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens) isn’t so much a specious defender of tradition as he is overachievingly Aryan, a man-boy country clubber prone to saying to friends such things as “Let the Nazis and the commies fight each other and solve both our problems.” And a mid-film episode that seemingly every film in the genre is obliged to deploy shows both Marshall and Friedman (a Jew all too aware of the rise of anti-Semitism both in Europe and closer to home) ambushed by thick-necked, A-shirt-clad yokels aiming to send the “you’re not from around these parts, are you” fear of a white god into the freedom fighters’ souls.
None of this falls outside of fair-game territory for a film that utilizes stock villainy and comedic buddy-picture tropes to give an otherwise battering genre some crowd-pleasing cred. Unfortunately, where the film falls into a regrettable and ultimately inescapable trap is in the specific case it chooses to re-litigate. Marshall arguably intends for societal 20/20 hindsight to provide the bulk of perspective here. At the risk of “spoiling” a case that was decided nearly 80 years ago, the film’s liberal racial politics emerge without complication. But Friedman and Marshall’s defense strategy of effectively blaming the purported victim of a sexual crime is presented with a freewheeling brashness that, in the same week that Harvey Weinstein’s entire house of non-disclosure agreements crashes down all around him (as opposed to an entire culture of unbalanced power), carries with it an unsavory and hypocritical whiff of nostalgia.