If the real Thurgood Marshall was as cocky, handsome, driven, talented and intelligent as the man Chadwick Boseman portrays in “Marshall,” he was clearly bigger than life. Rather than focus on Marshall’s landmark US Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which brought desegregation to public schools, Director Reginald Hudlin choses a lesser known case to showcase Marshall’s legal prowess and an incredibly talented cast.
In a very white Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1941, a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), is accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white Greenwich society woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Marshall was then a New York City lawyer working for the NAACP – in fact, he was practically the only lawyer working for the organization and was shunted across the map of America fighting for the rights of blacks who were often on trial simply because they were black. Nowhere was the racial hostility more apparent than in that dusty Connecticut courtroom as the self-righteous and socially connected sitting judge (James Cromwell) refused to allow some uppity black lawyer from New York to argue before his bench – decreeing that only attorneys licensed to practice in the State of Connecticut could appear before this self-important body. As a consequence, Co-counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance defense lawyer who had never tried a criminal case before, was forced to argue the case.
The slow evolution of a potent relationship is forged between the unlikely co-counsels. Where Marshall is confident and self-assured, Friedman is frightened and halting, and justly so since Friedman is in way over his head. It is a masterful case, as so many court dramas are that make it to the screen. But this was real life. The parallel between the “nigger” lawyer and the “kike” lawyer is not over played. Both men were maligned, curse, threatened, beaten and condemned because of their minority status and that they dared to take on the white establishment. The year is 1941, and Hitler was annihilating German Jews with impunity. As a consequence of this case, Friedman went on to become an advocate and voice for civil rights causes. Of course, Marshall went on to become the first African-American justice of the United States Supreme Court when he was appointed to that post by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. Prior to his tenure in the high court, Thurgood Marshall represented and won more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American.
This is a feel good movie. It’s the sort of film where people applaud the screen while credits are rolling at the end. As a period piece it is very well done – right down to Marshall’s two-toned shoes and silk pocket square. It is also a remarkable slice of life representing a dark time in our country’s history but with a hint of a promise of a better tomorrow. I guess it is this promise that audiences applaud.