Kyle Tuckman, Warren Loegering
Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall, is an incredible film about one of the first cases taken on by Thurgood Marshall in 1941. The movie captures the early years of Marshall’s career as one of the first attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff and Director Reginald Hudlin highlight how Thurgood Marshall’s illustrious legal career is even more impressive than one might realize due to the severe racist and anti-Semitic climate that impeded his ability to litigate effectively.
The first scene of the movie sets the tone. Marshall was defending a man named Billy Lions in the deep south, arguing that Lions was wrongfully convicted of murder and framed by the local police. We subsequently watch Marshall’s soon to be co-counsel, Sam Friedman, an immigrant Jew living in the Bridgeport, as he successfully wins a tort case by catching a procedural error. When Marshall returns to the NAACP headquarters in Manhattan, his boss assigns him to the movie’s central case: the defense of Joseph Spell.
The complaint by the Connecticut Prosecutor alleged that Spell, a servant at the Strubing residence in Greenwich, Connecticut, raped Ellie Strubing, a wealthy white socialite, while her husband was away on business. Strubing alleged that Spell raped her in her house, tied her up and gagged her with her ripped dress, and threw her off a bridge into an idle river. She somehow survived the fall, climbed back up to the road and found a passing car to assist her.
In the process of enlisting Friedman’s help on the case, Marshall reveals that he had once sued the University of Maryland Law School for discriminatory practices in not admitting him on the basis of his color and that he had argued in the United States Supreme Court on numerous occasions. In reality, Marshall did argue a case for discrimination against the University of Maryland, but it was not about him. The case was called Murray v. Pearson and was about a brilliant black man named Donald Gaines Murray who had amazing credentials, but was denied admission to the law school. Marshall won this case. Murray v. Pearson, 169 Md. 478 (1936).
In addition to the racist social climate that Marshall and Friedman face throughout the film, the pair found a greater obstacle in Judge Foster, who was a friend of the prosecutor’s father and refused to admit Marshall into the bar for the duration of the case. This meant that Marshall could not speak, argue, or defend Spell. This required Friedman to be first chair throughout the entirety of the trial. This was significant because Friedman had never tried a criminal case. The racially partial legal system essentially forced Spell to choose Friedman as his counsel even though he trusted Marshall more. As between Marshall and Friedman, it was interesting to see Marshall attempt to convince Friedman of Spell’s innocence. Spell was discharged from the army, cheated on his wife, and had been fired from his previous job for allegedly stealing from his employers. Marshall explains to Friedmann that, “Criminal defendants are not perfect citizens like you and me,” but that does not mean that they are necessarily guilty of the crimes they are charged with, particularly with respect to African American defendants. According to Marshall, “The Constitution was not written for [African Americans] but they were going to make it work for [them].” At this point in the movie, we learn that defending wrongly accused African Americans was not his only issue. Marshall’s wife, Buster Burey, was incapable of having children due to countless miscarriages. This seemed to be one of the driving forces in his tenacious fight for Civil Rights. He was fighting for the next generation, for the kids he did not have yet but longed for.
Friedman, under the guidance of Marshall, gave an epic performance at Joseph Spell’s trial. It was an incredible experience to watch Friedman come out of his shell throughout the trial, exposing all the holes in the prosecution’s arguments. Their biggest finding was that this was no rape at all; Spell and Strubing had consensual sex that Strubing initiated. She was lonely, intoxicated, and curious. She invited Spell into her bedroom, had intercourse with him, and afterwards, she became worried that someone might find out. She asked Spell to drive her away from the house. On their ride, they were pulled over by a cop. Once the cop pulled away, she became hysterical over the possibility of being pregnant with a child of mixed race. She ran out of the car and jumped into the river on her own. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, presumably because they believed the facts as the defense presented them.
The friendship that developed between Marshall and Friedman was one of the more beautiful aspects of the movie. As shown throughout the film, the life of a Jewish American during World War II, although incomparable to that of an African American, was not easy. Marshall and Friedman were able to understand and empathize with the hardship that they both faced.
The movie ended with Marshall in the deep south, beginning his next case. While in the train station, he drinks water from the “Whites Only” water fountain. This was a beautiful symbol of Marshall’s refusal to accept racist social norms. Marshall went on to argue 31 civil rights cases in front of the Supreme Court of the United States and only lost three. He also was the attorney for the NAACP in the landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall then became the first ever black Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Thurgood Marshall resigned from office on October 1st, 1991 and passed away on January 24th, 1993. In a telegram to Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “Your appointment represents a momentous step toward a color-blind society. You have proved to be a giant of your profession and your career has been one of the significant epochs of our time.”
In a year when white supremacy has reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, a movie like Marshall is a timely reminder of how the law can be a powerful tool to combat racism and promote equality. Marshall takes a familiar tactic—focusing on a specific period in the life of its subject—but employs a tone that feels more like a Marvel movie. It’s entertaining, if a little thin at times. While the film prioritizes style over substance, it remains stirring portrait of Thurgood Marshall before he donned the robes as this country’s first black Supreme Court Justice.
The film tells the story of one of the first cases handled by Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) when he was working for the NAACP. That case, however, isn’t Brown v. Board of Education. Instead, the film finds Marshall finishing up a case in Oklahoma in 1941 and heading to Greenwich, CT, where Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) has claimed that her chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), raped and attempted to murder her. Interestingly, Marshall does not get to handle this case alone, à la Atticus Finch. Instead, he’s barred from speaking in the courtroom by a prickly judge and is forced to try the case by coaching Sam Friedman (Josh Gad). The courtroom scenes crackle with energy. It’s not particularly realistic (think somewhere between Chicago and Law & Order), but it sure is fun. The film bounces between courtroom drama and buddy comedy, with much of the film’s success hinging Boseman and Gad’s great chemistry.
The film’s setting in Connecticut offers a unique opportunity to show how racism is not a uniquely Southern experience. White protestors in this wealthy town quickly direct their venomous hatred towards Marshall for intervening on Spell’s behalf. As a result, Friedman becomes a target as well. Friedman’s Jewish faith resonates in 1941, and the film explores this aspect by drawing a line between the ways in which the residents of Greenwich treated their Black and Jewish neighbors.
The relationship between Marshall and Friedman is the substantive center of the film. The character with depth, however, isn’t Marshall. Instead, the film illustrates Friedman’s transformation from a stumbling insurance lawyer into a righteous civil rights lawyer. In doing so, the film somewhat flattens its titular character. Boseman is wildly charismatic and wonderfully portrays Marshall as a magnetic figure. He is easy to admire as a legend, but not in any way relatable. He uses the courthouse steps as a stage, confidently standing in the face of protesters and giving electrifying speeches. Unfortunately, his character and titanic intellect is not fully explored. The nature of the Judge’s ruling in this case means we don’t get to see Marshall work in the courtroom—the burden of talking rests entirely on Friedman.
Although sprinkled with moments of complexity, the film focuses mostly on delivering a flashy story and often fails to capture the depth of the characters and relationships involved. The jazz club scene presents one such example. Marshall is in Harlem with Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda Thomas), an undeniably cool moment, and yet the film simply offers the scene without exploring the those relationships or their influence on his worldview. Similarly, a scene at the end of the film shows Marshall drinking from a whites-only water fountain in the South as an older black man looks on in shock, a reminder that Marshall is in a league of his own, brazen and bold. Unfortunately, it only served as a reminder of how little the film did to show why Marshall would do such a thing—who was he was beyond the hero it portrays?
The film, for all its strengths, feels like a missed opportunity to make something truly great. Even if the film was perfect, it is merely skimming the surface of Marshall’s legacy. Marshall deserves more–perhaps a Netflix miniseries is the solution, offering 10 or more hours to create a story with more depth than is available in a feature length film.