“A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” said the NAACP flag that hanged from the organization’s Fifth Avenue New York Headquarters near beginning of the film Marshall. Up front and to the point, like the lead character in the film.
Known as the first African-American to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1967, Marshall takes place well before that historic moment. Shortly after defending a black man on trial accused of murdering a white family in Oklahoma, Thurgood Marshall then 32 in January 1941, was quickly summoned back to New York and boarded a train. A new case beckoned. Such was the life of a NAACP lawyer defending those needed defending in the Jim Crow South.
The new case that awaited, The State of Connecticut v Joseph Spell. Joseph Spell, 31, a black butler-chauffeur, is accused of raping Eleanor Strubing, 32, a white socialite whom she and her husband had employed Spell. The case brought attention not only from the racial dynamics, but also from having taken place in the North.
In online article titled, “The State of Connecticut v Joseph Spell,” of Legal Affairs March-April 2005 by Daniel Sharfstein, a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University, Sharfstein writes, “Yet the Spell affair reveals the underappreciated importance of NAACP’s litigation in the North. Swamped with requests for help from all over the country, the organization’s lawyers targeted the South, suing over voting rights, equal pay for black teachers, and segregation in higher education.” Sharfstein also added that NAACP’s fundraising letters to Northern branches were meant to draw attention to the large number of blacks employed as domestics, whom all would be affected unless there’s justice for Spell. All laid out, the historical background from which the film was based. So with that, some minor spoilers ahead.
Marshall is worth seeing. While it doesn’t go extensively into the life of Thurgood Marshall, it instead focuses on another significant case by the legendary civil rights lawyer portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. Boseman and Josh Gad as Sam Friedman, a Jewish insurance lawyer who until then had never tried a criminal case, are both good in their roles.
When it comes to Hollywood bio films there’s always a question of fictionalization. In the 1999 film The Hurricane, about the life of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former middleweight boxer wrongly convicted and portrayed by Denzel Washington, one of the characters was fictionalized. Det. Sgt. Vincent Della Pesca, a racist New Jersey cop, was a fictionalized role based on the real New Jersey Det. Vincent DeSimone who had never met Rubin Carter.
In the 2011 film Moneyball, about the life of Billy Beane, Oakland A’s baseball GM portrayed by Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill’s role as Peter Brand the Yale educated mathematician was fictionalized. A role based on Paul DePodesta who’s Harvard educated though had worked with Billy Beane. While the 2016 film Hidden Figures, the roles of Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford and Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Mitchell are all fictionalized and not based on anyone.
While watching the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, I thought perhaps Brad Pitt’s role as Canadian Bass was also fictionalized. And another example of a white savior trope. Until I read the book shortly after written by Solomon Northup. Then I found out Bass was real. A Canadian who one day visited the Louisiana plantation who after meeting Solomon Northup of New York, shortly after went out of his way to set him free, all documented within three chapters of the gripping memoir. Knowing that also made the second viewing of 12 Years a Slave, winning Best Picture, all the more satisfying. A film I would also rate five stars out of five.
Marshall has no fictionalization among any main supporting roles. That’s refreshing. Besides the roles of Joseph Spell by two time Emmy winning actor Sterling K. Brown, and Eleanor Strubing by Golden Globe winning actress Kate Hudson, there really was the stern Judge Foster who ruled that Thurgood Marshall can only advise Sam Friedman in court, yet was not allowed to either speak before the court or call witnesses. Upon finding out Thurgood Marshall was not a member of the Connecticut bar even though he had already argued a case before the Supreme Court.
Furthermore the role of prosecuting attorney Lorin Willis, portrayed by Dan Stevens, was also real as well as his characterization. As Daniel Sharfstein from the Legal Affairs includes Willis was an unreconstructed bigot. Then Sharfstein adds, “He hated everybody,”’ said Friedman. If you were a Polack, if you were a Jew, if you were a wop – this was Willis.” James Cromwell plays Judge Foster. The other supporting roles, John “Ted” Lancaster, head of the Bridgeport, Connecticut NAACP portrayed by Derrick Baskin, Irwin Friedman, lawyer and brother of Sam Friedman portrayed by John Magaro, Vivien “Buster” Marshall, wife of Thurgood Marshall portrayed by Keesha Sharp, Walter White, civil rights activist and executive director of the NAACP portrayed by Roger Guenveur Smith, and of course Langston Hughes, poet, activist, novelist and playwright portrayed by Jussie Smollett, was really a friend of Thurgood Marshall.
Some may call Marshall a feel good film while showing court drama. Even calling it a buddy film as both Marshall and Friedman, along with brother Irwin, all team up to get justice for Joseph Spell. I wouldn’t go too far in those descriptions in the film. It does pander some, but it also doesn’t get carried away in schmaltz.
Angelica Florio of Bustle in her October 13, 2017 online article, “How Accurate Is ‘Marshall’? The Courtroom Drama Takes On A Historic Battle,” said it best. Though she says the film’s overall depiction of Thurgood Marshall sells him short, the film’s overall representation of the case was accurate. Then she later concludes to get to the meat.
“Marshall is an important story to see right now, as it gives true historical context to the U.S.’s racism and anti-miscegenation that existed throughout the country – even in the regions in which racism was not viewed as a prevalent problem,” says Ms. Florio before she adds, “The fact that films like Get Out, set in present day, feature similar themes to Marshall suggests that things have not changed as much as people would like to believe, and the events surrounding The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell may not be as unique to 1941 as people would like to believe, either.”
Her statement reminds me of an African-American woman I had worked with, who then couldn’t see as a black man why I was making trips to Atlanta. First I told her racism doesn’t stop or start depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you may be from. Then I told her of a recent article in Ebony magazine of blacks moving back to the South after having lived in the North. It was also wonderful Angelica Florio mentioned Get Out. Comedian Jordan Peele, director of Get Out, who at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year had said it was important for him not to make another film about a black guy experiencing racism in the South. As the lead character in the film, Chris, experiences such among a liberal wealthy enclave in upstate New York.
Marshall may not be a great film, but it’s a good film that’s worthy to be seen. And enough of some critics who may say Boseman is good but he’s no Denzel. Chadwick Boseman is not to be another Denzel Washington, just like Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, and Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are all not meant to be another Denzel Washington. They’re all to take on a role, own it and make it their own. Which is what acting should be about. Also, look for the cameo appearances of Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, parents of Trayvon Martin, in the roles as Mississippi Father and Mississippi Mother, who meet Thurgood Marshall arriving at a train station in the final scene of the film. Reginald Hudlin directed, and father and son Michael and Jacob Koskoff both wrote the script. I give the film Marshall four stars out of five.