Thurgood Marshall was a titan of the civil rights movement. He began his career as the sole lawyer for the NAACP. Marshall argued pivotal racial equality cases, most importantly, the landmark Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954; which desegregated schools in the United States. Marshall became the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is truly one of the most important men in American history.
Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin and starring Chadwick Boseman, is not a sweeping biopic. It is the portrayal of a defining case in Marshall's early career. The film takes place in 1941, during the dark days of World War II. Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) accused her driver, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of rape and attempted murder. Strubing's assault gripped the nation with its violent and salacious details. The high profile nature of the crime led the NAACP to investigate.
Marshall was dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut. He could not represent Joseph Spell because he was not a member of the state's bar association. Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) was an insurance lawyer who'd never set foot in a criminal court. His brother (John Magaro), as a favor to a black childhood friend, volunteers Sam to represent Spell and allow admitting privilege for Thurgood Marshall. The judge (James Cromwell) is apoplectic at this development. He allows Marshall to sit and advise during proceedings, but cannot speak whatsoever. A single utterance by Marshall would result in a charge of contempt. Spell's fate was in the hands of an unwilling novice and silenced supporter.
Marshall is an absolutely riveting film. It is a snapshot of Jim Crow America, where racism and segregation permeated every facet of life. Marshall shows the disparity of life for blacks in the south compared to the northeast. While lynching and violence was commonplace everywhere, blacks in the northeast hoped for better security and economic freedom. The Spell case sent a shockwave. Wealthy whites that employed blacks as servants where gripped with irrational fear. Would the house boy or butler attack their precious daughters and wives sacred virtue? The economic impact was a dire threat to the black community.
Marshall is not a preachy epitome on racial bias. It is a personal story of the people involved in the case. Marshall and Friedman overcome their differences to become staunch allies. Marshall is depicted as he was, a brilliant and courageous legal mind. Friedman did not envision himself a champion of negro rights, but changed his tune once he understood that a man's life was at stake. His journey, as a Jewish lawyer representing a hated black man, was as perilous as Marshall's. Both men faced physical danger for their actions. Their lives were in the crosshairs as much as Spell's.
Reginald Hudlin does a fantastic job of weaving in the mystery element. We clearly understand the racial overtones and galvanizing affect on all parts of society. The film succeeds because it never forgets the nuts and bolts of solving the case. Marshall and Friedman are meticulous in their discovery. They look under all the rocks and dig up the ugly truths that people did not want to discuss. The answers struck to the core of inequality in America. It shone a bright light into dark corners. You will understand why this particular case in Thurgood Marshall's life was so important.
Chadwick Boseman is superb here. He plays Marshall with gallant conviction. Josh Gad starts out as sheepish, but rises to the moment as Sam Friedman. Kudos to Reginald Hudlin for taking the time to show their lives at home. These were brave men who risked everything by defending this case. Kate Hudson is also good as Eleanor Strubing. Her character was the center of the storm, and deserved to have her story told as well.
Reginald Hudlin could have gone much bleaker with the subject matter. He keeps the case in focus, but depicts Marshall elegantly in his tireless early days. I appreciate his straightforward approach. It is a fitting tribute to a great man, and all of the people who supported his cause. From Open Road films, Marshall is a must see.