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Great performances in 'Marshall' lead film about American giant

"Marshall" is a film of small pleasures about a giant figure.

The giant figure is Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice and, far more consequentially, the crusading civil rights lawyer who shepherded "Brown vs. Board of Education" to a Supreme Court triumph in 1954. That's the case which officially ended official segregation. White America could no longer hide behind the appalling fiction of "separate but equal."

"Marshall," though, catches him in 1941, when he is the early NAACP's only full-time lawyer. He's the one charged with traveling America to fight the more obvious cases of legal discrimination against black defendants. These are the cases where, to black onlookers, "prosecution" is blatant persecution.

In this case, the defendant is a terrified black chauffeur in Bridgeport, Conn., whose background makes him a less than sympathetic defendant (a less-than-honorable military discharge). His wealthy female employer has accused him of rape and attempted murder (throwing her off a bridge).

Chief among the film's small pleasures is the huge pleasure of seeing how beautifully Buffalo fills in for upscale Bridgeport. The wonderful fact about Buffalo is that because of its onetime enormous wealth, it is a very beautiful city. And every time a film company arrives with the aim of filming a story from the 1930s and '40s, they show us how very beautiful our vintage architecture looks on screen.

The template was Barry Levinson and Caleb Deschanel's "once-upon-a-time" cinematographic look for "The Natural." Director Reginald Hudlin said he never saw "The Natural" before making "Marshall," but I'd be willing to bet his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel did. You'll definitely be reminded of how Deschanel photographed the city's vintage architecture in "The Natural" when you see the way Sigel photographs our classic but unused Central Terminal, Delaware Park, Beard Avenue in North Buffalo,  Statler City's former Rendezvous Room (doubling for Harlem's bebop birthplace, Minton's Playhouse) and City Hall.

Any filmmaker who needs upscale cityscapes from the 1930s and '40s would almost be as well-advised to consider Buffalo as Western filmmakers would be to shoot in John Ford's much-beloved Monument Valley in Utah.

[Gallery: Where 'Marshall' filmed around Western New York]

But that pleasure, for Buffalonians, is far from a small pleasure. Some lesser ones for one and all:

The performance of actor Chadwick Boseman, whose fame is about to go through the roof when "Black Panther" comes out next spring. This is his latest biographical role after distinguishing himself so much as James Brown and Jackie Robinson. What's so good here is that this is a firm and resolute Thurgood Marshall but also an arrogant, difficult and not particularly nice man.

When he first meets the Jewish Bridgeport insurance lawyer (Josh Gad) assigned as co-counsel, he expects his co-counsel to carry heavy suitcases for him. It's a very pointed example of racial pride but also a revelation of a self-confidence that is the opposite of friendly.

Boseman's Marshall isn't as sympathetic as either of his other major biopic roles, Brown and Robinson. It was a gusty call from both director and actor.

The performance of Sterling K. Brown as the accused defendant. Brown, at the moment, is just about Hollywood's MVP, after winning the Emmy as Chris Darden in FX's O.J. mini-series and for TV's authorized prime-time weepie "This Is Us." As a defendant with a lot to hide, he is terrific in "Marshall." It's the best performance in the film.

Nor far from him is Gad, as the Jewish defense lawyer. Gad has done a lot of TV (notably "The Comedians") and voiced a lot of animated films ("Frozen"), but this is a rare straight-ahead dramatic role for him and it may well be the best thing he's ever done.

The resolution of the case is likely to be predictable to anyone who has ever seen a book or movie (it is based in reality), but it's all satisfyingly done in a style that indeed resembles a very good TV movie (which is, by no means criticism. Television is where we expect to see crafty courtroom tales featuring good actors in historic roles.)

It's not at all anomalous to see it on a theater screen. In fact, it's an extremely pleasurable anachronism from a movie era where theater audiences would often be expected to be serious-minded adults in search of hero stories.

None of what made Thurgood Marshall a towering American figure was easily translated to the movies. It was nothing but good sense to show him as a tough, ultra-confident, younger lawyer on his way through am abrasive, vicious case in a life full of them.


Three stars out of four

Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson and James Cromwell in film about the early years of the first African-American Supreme Court justice. 118 minutes. (Rated PG-13 for mature themes, sexuality, violence and some strong language.)

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