The new film "Marshall," a biopic of the young Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, reminded me of Harper Lee's seminal novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
It reminded me about why "To Kill a Mockingbird" has lately made me a little uncomfortable.
Let me back up and make one thing very clear: "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been in the news in just the last few days, because a school district in Mississippi has banned the book, the school board vice president telling a reporter, “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable.”
I'm not aligning myself with that perspective.
The school board specifically took issue with the use of a particular racial slur in the novel -- a novel that is about racism -- and on those grounds, they felt the book was inappropriate for their students. I love the novel, and I strongly recommend it for young, developing minds. It was an important narrative, and a beautifully written one, for me to encounter as an early teen.
However, I wish I had also had more exposure to works by black writers themselves, because I have lately become somewhat critical of the way that "To Kill a Mockinbird" presents Atticus Finch -- a white lawyer -- as a beacon of moral justice, a hero whose views that racism is bad make him worthy of celebration.
Again: I don't want "To Kill a Mockingbird" to go away. But I think that every white kid who reads it from now on should maybe pair it with something where people of color are the heroes and the protagonists. Like, for example, a viewing of "Marshall."
The two plots are strikingly similar (with the important caveat that this one is nonfiction): A black man is accused of raping a white woman, and an honorable protagonist lawyer comes to his defense.
It was refreshing, however, to have that protagonist lawyer be a black man.
Like Atticus Finch, Thurgood Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) is presented in this story as a sort of moral superhero, but unlike Finch, Marshall isn't rooted in a single community. The NAACP calls on him -- like the Commissioner Gordon calls on Batman -- to sweep into a community and tackle a legal case that would be significant for the broader civil rights push.
Boseman is not given much room for nuance in this script, but his portrayal is still believable, and he effectively carries the film, giving weight to the drama. Josh Gad has slightly more to play with in his role as Sam Friedman, a white, Jewish lawyer who gets mixed up in the case inadvertently -- and at first, against his will. He's essentially a shell for Marshall's legal prowess.
Friedman is not at all a "white savior," and in fact, the film goes out of its way to showcase his own racial prejudice. But the arc that he has is satisfying. And Gad's impeccable instincts for comedy come through in this role that will also put him on the map as a serious performer. If you loved what he did with "LeFou" (and I did!), you'll like the more grounded version even more.
Comedy is something that this movie actually has a ton of -- even the most intensely dramatic moments are almost always punctured by a lightness in the script, which I think is to the movie's credit. The humor doesn't at all diminish the seriousness of the themes or situations. And given a context in Hollywood where almost every movie about racism against black people is played with a heavy-handed seriousness, I think the lighter touch of "Marshall" will reach audiences in a new way.
I wish the film had a little bit more complexity. The lead lawyer on the other side (the racist side) is Loren Willis, played with mustache-twirling, tiki-torch-bearing villainy by Dan Stevens. It's a performance that I did love for all the smarmy evil Stevens delivers (I'm sure Donald Trump Jr. has a full-size poster of Stevens as Willis hanging above his hope chest in his bedroom), but it was a bit one-note.
One place the film could have been more nuanced is in its handling of false accusations of sexual assault. That is a really, really sticky subject, and the filmmakers seem to strategically dodge it altogether. Kate Hudson plays Eleanor Strubing, the woman who accuses the defendant Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) of raping her.
By never truly taking Strubing's side, the film lacks what could have been a more resonant overall point: That is, that the very systems that kept civil rights from non-white Americans are not unrelated to the systems that oppress women. White supremacy and patriarchy are inextricably linked, having many of the same founding fathers.
While Strubing was in the wrong and Spell was not in this particular case, there's something missing here on the question of how society should believe women when they come forward with accusations of sexual assault. Both Strubing and Spell faced crushing, different, but related systemic pressures. The movie hints at some of these issues, but doesn't ever fully commit to exploring them.
But intricate nuances are not what this movie is going for, and that is no more clear than a scene in which Marshall sits down for a chat with Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston happens to show up. It's the kind of scene that makes you go, "OK, this is the kind of movie I'm watching."
But this kind of movie has a place, too. It's perfect for showing your kids, or anyone just starting to grasp the understanding that racism is bad. And it's more than that, too. Given the operatic pitch that the movie is playing at, it has plenty more to appreciate and enjoy than just as a corrective companion piece of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell
Running time: 1 hour, 58 min
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language