Before Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, he was the creator and head lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, representing black defendants charged with crimes that, in many cases, would have resulted in long prison sentences or even death. Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin with a screenplay by Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff, is based on Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, one of many cases that burnished the reputation of the young civil rights attorney who would one day ascend to the nation’s highest bench.
Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad
Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed another African-American hero, Jackie Robinson, in 24, gives an Oscar-worthy performance that should have many going back to learn more about the iconic Marshall. Fourteen years after the Spell case, Marshall would argue before the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education, resulting in a landmark decision that would rule unconstitutional separate public schools for black and white students.
The Spell trial was an inspired choice for a film that sets out to illustrate the struggles blacks faced in 1940, not only in southern states, but in northern states like Connecticut. In tony Greenwich, Joseph Spell (Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown), is a chauffeur for the Strubings, a wealthy white family. When Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), is found wet and bloodied on a bridge, she tells police that Spell raped her several times in her bedroom, then drove her to the bridge, and threw her into the water. Spell is immediately arrested and charged with the crime.
Keesha Sharp and Chadwick Boseman
Marshall and his wife, Buster (Keesha Sharp), live in Baltimore where their circle of friends includes the poet Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett). Buster, newly pregnant, is accustomed to her husband’s schedule and so isn’t surprised when he’s sent to Connecticut to defend Spell. Because Marshall isn’t a member of the Connecticut bar, he hires as local counsel Sam Friedman (a terrific Josh Gad). Without resources to hire a lawyer, Spell seems resigned to his fate. Marshall’s rule is that the NAACP will only represent innocent defendants. After Spell swears he did not rape Eleanor Strubing, Marshall agrees to take on the case.
Friedman had hoped to make one appearance as Spell’s attorney, petitioning the court to allow Marshall temporary admittance to the Connecticut bar so that he could represent Spell. Judge Foster (a grim and unforgiving James Cromwell), rejects that request, telling Marshall he may sit at the table but won’t be allowed to speak during the trial. Friedman panics, saying he’s unprepared to represent Spell. His protests that he knows nothing about criminal law results in Marshall handing over a huge stack off law books.
There’s another issue giving Friedman pause. Greenwich is a small, closed community and lines have already been drawn. (Judge Foster makes it clear whose side he’s on, asking the prosecutor, Loren Willis, played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, about the health of his father.) For Friedman, he and his wife, Stella (Marina Squerciati of Chicago PD), risk being ostracized by their neighbors. But Friedman is no stranger to anti-semitism and when he learns that Stella’s relatives have been taken to a concentration camp in Poland, the fight against discrimination hits home.
While Friedman is the voice in the courtroom, Marshall is the one writing the script, working to stay one step ahead of Willis. As the star witness, Eleanor Strubing seems to seal Spell’s fate (Hudson is very convincing describing the attack), but Marshall convinces Spell to reject a deal being offered by Willis. With everything on the line, Marshall is called away on another case, leaving Friedman, who is now more than capable of holding his own, to deliver a heartfelt closing argument.
Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman, and Sterling K. Brown
Boseman’s Marshall displays a maturity and confidence that never tips over into arrogance. He’s dismissive of the rules that have been placed on blacks by a white society – leaving Friedman to carry his bags when they first meet and drinking out of the “whites only” fountain despite the stares of a bystander. He carries himself with pride, accentuated by his stylish suits and accessories (kudos to costume designer Ruth E. Carter). We know, of course, where Marshall’s path will lead, but glimpsing the beginnings of greatness makes for a satisfying story. Hudlin’s direction means there’s never a dull moment, whether Marshall is dealing with a personal crisis or one that might doom his client to a lifetime in prison. Scenic design is evocative, taking us to a time and place where life was simpler for some, dangerous for others.
Marshall will join the ranks of other courtroom dramas – To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill – where civil rights battles were fought. It’s a battle still being waged, inside and outside the courtroom.
Top photo: Chadwick Boseman
Photo credit: Barry Wetcher/Distributor: Open Road Films