Marshall: Movie Man Jackson

Justice isn’t guaranteed, it’s earned. Young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) makes his living fighting injustices. He’s a traveling lawman for the NAACP, defending people of color who have been wrongfully accused of crimes they never committed. His latest assignment brings him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who’s been charged with the rape and attempted murder of his provider, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Things take a turn when Marshall isn’t allowed to take the lead. Rather, the defense lead is given to the man who briefed him on the situation, Jewish insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who is reluctant to take the responsibility for fear it’ll tarnish his business. With Friedman having no experience in the criminal realm, Marshall has to lead from the side while Sam takes point, navigating a slanted judge and jury while being the only hope an innocent man has in avoiding life behind bars.

The latest biographical movie, Marshall, follows the trend of late for Hollywood biographical movies and/or events. That trend being, to focus on a specific period and/or event instead of the overarching life and/or story. This approach does streamline things and allows a sometimes-staid genre to be less conventional. At the same time, there’s a little missing in the way of character building when going about a “biography” this way. Marshall sees both ends of this double-edged sword, but the good largely outweighs the bad.

There’s a reason “biography” was put in quotations, not because of loose facts, but what the idea of a biography conjures up; i.e. a relatively deep and possibly somber dive into a subject. Director Reginald Hudlin (The Great White Hype) and writers Michael (real life Bridgeport attorney) and Jacob Koskoff choose to place much of the focus not on the meat of the lead characters, but the trial that they are a part of. Marshall is great as a courtroom drama, which happens to be most of the movie’s runtime. To spoil bits of it would be a disservice, as the case being one of Marshall’s first ones makes it likely (at least for this viewer) that only the history nuts will know of the verdict and all the twists and turns. Watching this with a bit of uncertainty makes for a relatively gripping finale.

The case that the writers have selected from Marshall’s catalog is an intriguing one that places all attention on the legal proceedings, but in the process, does marginalize Marshall the man to an extent for a few reasons. This serves as a very surface level—almost Disney-like—look at Thurgood; those expecting great depths into the man’s everyday life and character will be very disappointed.

There’s a running joke going around many parts of the Internet that the film’s title should be Marshall & Friedman (aptly sounding), but it serves the point that Marshall is really a co-star and even a secondary player at times in a production named after him. The film itself takes on more of a buddy cop feel than foreseen, especially in tone, and the light one can be problematic. The levity is appreciated in spots, yet simultaneously undermines some serious moments, as does the mostly hokey score. Certain jokes simply do not need to be here. Whether delivery or timing, some dialogue is a bit odd-sounding and juxtaposes the noir-like recounts told by people on the stand.

After playing notable African-American individuals in Jackie Robinson and James Brown in 42 and Get on Up, it’s no surprise that Chadwick Boseman can carry the acting responsibility of portraying one of the greatest lawyers in history. The difference in his role, however, is that it seems to rely more on Boseman’s natural charisma and screen presence than those other two. He gets a lot of reign to show swagger and confidence that makes Marshall more of a dynamic watch than a history lesson. The dynamic he shares with Josh Gad is again an odd one in spots, but it works. Gad isn’t the strongest comedy guy turned serious actor, but he’s largely solid and better as the movie goes on. Rest of the cast is filled out by steady talent in Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Roger Guenveur Smith, Dan Stevens, and James Cromwell. A few characters can border on caricature, however; by and large the cast grounds them into enough realism.

The jury (of one) ruling on Marshall? Not a definitive introspective look at the man who would become the first African-American Supreme Court judge, but, a lighter-toned, relatively solid entertaining courtroom drama.

B-

Photo credits go to comingsoon.net, blackfilm.com, and algemeiner.com.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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The Birth of a Nation: Movie Man Jackson

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Looking for a happy ending? Not going to find it here. Southampton County, Virginia, the year 1831. Slavery has been in full effect for quite some time now. Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was born into it. Unlike most, he’s actually been taught on how to read, in particular, The Bible. While still not being seen as an equal, the white man does see Nat as a valued commodity who gets treated “better” as such, compared to his brethren.

Fearing rumors of a slave revolt which would be devastating during drought season, plantation owners such as Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) decide to use Nat as a tool to quell any revolution. Surely slaves hearing about how they should remain docile from a fellow slave would do the trick, right? Over time, however, Nat sees his people suffer horrible atrocities, and begins to question what he is doing. The stage becomes set for a revolution that promises to be just as bloody as the one fought between the Patriots and the Loyalists.

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The real talking point leading up to The Birth of a Nation (no relation to the 1915 KKK propaganda version, but its title was selected very deliberately), is the controversy that happens to surround star, producer, and director Nate Parker back when he was in college. It is a point that is sure to be brought up relentlessly from now until February 26. 2017, the date of the Oscars. But things deserve to be looked at as objectively as can be. Objectively as yours truly can be, The Birth of a Nation is a bold way to launch a feature directing career. The good outweighs the bad, but like most debuts, everything doesn’t hum perfectly.

The narrative isn’t the issue with The Birth of a Nation. It is actually a pretty thorough screenplay that goes beyond the “slavery is wrong” aspect by introducing religion and the identity that one has to themselves and their social group, especially in times of turmoil, which resonates today. Nat Turner the historical character has a lot of meat. Honestly, Parker doesn’t seem to get into all of it. But for what he does present to the audience, he does do an impressive job as the lead character.

Not a performance that immediately grabs the viewer, and starting out, it does feel a little suspect. But by the middle and into the end, Parker truly sells not just the physical anguish Nat experiences, but the mental anguish and internal crisis that Nat is exposed to. It is the latter that truly hits home, more so than the physical depictions of slavery. He’s firmly on the Best Actor nominee list.

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However, the cast as a whole isn’t an undeniable strength of The Birth of a Nation; for every strong performance, there is a role that lacks gravitas and even realism, which whips the movie down a few notches on the emotional scale. Armie Hammer does lose himself in his slave owner character Samuel Turner. Yes, he is a bad man, but there’s still a shred of humanity that makes one care for him if only because you know he could be a good person. And in a smaller role, Roger Guenvier Smith (Dope, Deep Cover) excels.

Most of the rest suffer from having too little to do (i.e. the women in the cast, either damsels in distress or conveniently written love interests), or from being a little too caricature-y to be taken seriously (Jackie Earle Haley, especially Mark Boone Jr.). The Birth of a Nation is also weirdly inconsistent in tone in places. While no one is going to confuse this for a fluffy watch, some of the moments of lightness are endearing, but others undercut the seriousness of what’s at hand.

Directing a feature film for the first time, Parker shows good raw skill. Not many shots truly stand out, but a few do in the latter half. He certainly takes inspiration from works such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan during the impressive climax. If there were a noticeable flaw, I’d say that scenes which show Nat’s destiny as a leader come off as a little pretentious and overly artsy for the sake of being so. While there may be some symbolism there that flew over my head, it doesn’t really add anything to the film, at least on first view.

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The Birth of a Nation doesn’t rise up to classic biography status. But all controversy aside, The Birth of a Nation is an imperfect, yet still overall compelling biography movie about a very intriguing character and moment in history.

B-

Photo credits go to IGN.com, armiehammerfans.com, and indiewire.com

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Dope: Movie Man Jackson

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 “I’m just Malcolm.”

It’s best to break out the multi-colored windbreaker, gold rope chain, and Kid N’ Play hi-top for this one. High school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a self-professed, 1990’s hip-hop music/style aficionado school geek, and Harvard University hopeful, making his way in a rough area of Los Angeles along with equally geeky and old-school loving friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). They don’t fit into their school, city, or what society expects of them. And they like it like way. 

Their everyday scripts end up getting flipped, though, when the trio gets invited to local Dope dealer Dom’s (A$AP Rocky) birthday party. While there, what starts as a fun trek into a world foreign to them ends up with Malcolm in possession of a whole lot of MDMA. No matter how this ends up for he and crew, it is definitely going to be a journey that will teach him a ton about himself.

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Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar), gets its inspiration from classic urban 90’s flicks like Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, even House Party. Looking at this through the lens of what came before it, it is easy to think that this isn’t that different from those aforementioned films. Dope is different, or at the very least feels so, as it has been a while since one of these predominately black coming-of-age films has been out to the public. That doesn’t mean that it is as tight as those others, but it is worth a look. 

Where Dope differs from most of the rest is who, or rather what, is the focus of its attention. Most of these types of movies choose to focus on the gangster lifestyle where everyone is seemingly a gangster or headed down that path, either willingly or unwillingly. Famuyiwa instead chooses to focus on the perception, and not so much the reality, even though the reality is clear.

It is tough to describe and probably makes no sense reading that, but long story short, this is a story about refusing to accept what someone should be or how they should act based on their circumstances, skin color, etc. It is also a story about letting your environment shape you but not necessarily make you; however, this theme becomes a bit more fuzzy as the movie goes on.

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Yours truly knows these thoughts may be all over the place and unorganized, but I’d rather not spoil anything despite finding it somewhat hard to get these thoughts clearer. As addicting as Dope is, the 90’s old school hip-hop tracks surely assisting in that, it is sort of all over the place in what it is trying to achieve. Sure, it is a coming-of-age story, but occasionally it is told as a a satire, sometimes a comedy, other times a brooding drama. In scenes it is possible to get all of these at once, making the film sort of inconsistent in tone (perhaps intentionally?), which is felt the most during a very odd middle portion that really could have been done without. Seriously, this portion is so out there and bizarre that it really detracts from the film for a good while, and I was afraid that it would be completely downhill from that point. Luckliy, a key plot twist put this right back on schedule.

Dope is not laced with great performances. That isn’t to say that any are bad, it is just that when one watches this, it is unlikely that anyone in the cast will blow anyone away. Rappers A$AP Rocky and Tyga do not embarrass themselves in their screentime but it is hard to see them do anything else besides these parts in the future. Zoe Kravitz does supply a strong love interest for the main character. The trio of friends feel like people who would have a strong bond, with the natural teen banter and what not. Veteran Roger Guenveur Smith, an actor who always makes the most of his time in any movie, is a steady hand in a critical role.

The man who truly impresses is Shameik Moore as Malcolm. He has a strong screen presence, reminiscent of Derek Luke in both appearance and performance. Here, he’s funny, magnetic, and displays all of the emotions expected with being in a situation such as the one he finds himself in. Hopefully this proves to be a launching pad into bigger things.

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Dope is a bag of product that doesn’t always produce the consistent desired effect, but it does produce pretty notable highs, and it is a lot different than anything else out right now. It may not be for everyone, but how Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society are held in high regard as classic 90’s street dramas, Dope may be the 2010’s version of those in a modern setting.

Grade: B-

Photo credits go to highsnobiety.con, yahoo.com, and complex.com.

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