If you ask a white person who is Thurgood Marshall some will reply: the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice or the lawyer who won Brown v the Board of Education. That’s if they even recognize the name.
If you ask a black or brown person who is Thurgood Marshall in addition to the answers above many will add: the first NAACP staff attorney or a vocal civil rights crusader unafraid of calling other prominent black figures to account for their role (or lack thereof) in uplifting the black community. That’s if they know anything about US black history.
If you ask almost anyone, who is Sam Friedman, you’ll mostly be greeted with blank stares and silence almost uniformly.
Quick and Dirty: The facts of the case at the center of Marshall aren’t anything new in terms of a Hollywood story arc, and it’s because this is a storyline that’s “been done” on film in some fashion or form that this version of this type of situation is very much needed. Fear of a black man isn’t a trope that sprung whole clothe from the mind of a creative.
It’s was (and remains) a societal reality.
Fear of violent reprisal by black men was one of the arguments vehemently touted in support of “separate but equal.” The supposed danger black men posed to white women if left to “roam free” about civilized society the topic of rallies and propaganda campaigns. By choosing this moment in history to introduce the world to Thurgood Marshall (and the civil rights movement on the whole) that’s as rarely highlighted as the years of lynching and separatism are discussed objectively this film brings the reality of striving to live let alone legally defend yourself in a world where dark skin is viewed as a sign of a beastly, violent nature front and center. The less than perfect past, or motives, of all the parties involved, stands as a pointed commentary on the reality the role perception plays in achieving justice when the truth will not set you free.
Marshall is about a fiercely driven Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) during his days as the sole attorney for the NAACP. Long before he argued Brown before the US Supreme Court, ultimately leading to the end of “separate but equal” and school segregation, Thurgood Marshall was a dragon slayer with a near perfect winning streak (before all was said and done he’d lose only 3 cases). I stress that point because a win for Thurgood most likely means a life saved…literally. But, the film is also very much so the story of Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) a white (Jewish) civil litigator living in Bridgeport, Connecticut dragged into the case at the center of this film, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell absolutely against his will. His the evolution of a good – but fearful – man into a great trial lawyer and advocate.
Chadwick Boseman may not physically resemble Thurgood Marshall – and that difference lessens the overall impact some of his more subversive acts – but he completely embodied the sharp intelligence, swagger, and stalwartness that lies at the heart and soul of this man who would become legend. The film’s decision to focus on the loss of his voice and the unreasonableness of the court’s refusal to see or hear him stands as a sharp necessary lesson chains don’t need to be physical to be effective and that breaking them is no less an uphill battle.
Grade: A –
In Detail: You should know going in, this film isn’t centered around “the making of” Thurgood Marshall: civil rights crusader (although that’s a movie I’m here for just as soon as Ava’s got time in her schedule) it’s about Thurgood Marshall and the case that reinvigorated both the NAACP and revealed allies-in-waiting who may have never stepped forward or been well received but for this case and the impact it had on the men – and women – involved. But Marshall is very much based in fact.
In 1940, Thurgood Marshall traveled to Bridgeport to defend a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), accused of the rape and attempted murder of an upper-class white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).
Here Begins Lawyer Speak: Because Thurgood was not a member of the State Bar in Connecticut, he must have permission to appear and argue before the court in this case. If you want the fancy Latin name, this is called appearing Pro Hac Vice. Here Endeth Lawyer Speak. Sam Friedman stood as local counsel in order to make a motion to allow for his appearance. Due to an overtly belligerent and unwelcoming Judge (James Cromwell) and a smug and openly racist prosecutor (Dan Stevens), things do not go as planned and Friedman finds himself attached to the case for the duration. It’s an understatement to say he was far from enthused.
Visually, Marshall captures the essence of a time and the rhythm of a cultural mentality still casting its shadow on society today. The direct manner in which the script and Hudlin’s direction uses the natural by-play of the dialogue between characters alongside pivotal scenes and encounters that orient these people in the greater time and place unveils not only the motivations and personalities of the main characters but the insidious prejudice and racism running unchecked beneath the supposedly more civilized and enlightened “North.”
Flashes of Sam Friedman’s personal life and struggles as a Jewish man living at the dawn of Hitler’s regime is a more subtle lesson on the nature of hate and callous advocacy of separatism and supremacy. But it impacts is no less jarring as the realization that his fear and reluctance are firmly rooted in the same fear and hesitation that plague black men and women of the time daily sinks in.
His courtroom persona is juxtaposed against his loving relationship with his wife and his respected standing amongst other highly influential and (now) well-known figures of the 40s. The hints of his rich personal life and private struggles offer glimpses to a man most known for his savvy and unflappable courtroom manner. There aren’t many moments and because of it, his sacrifices and drive shine through all the more clearly.
The soundtrack and score do an excellent job of both transporting you to the 40s (Andra Day has this thing about her voice that’s just magical) and holding your attention as you invest in the courtroom drama and the realities as Friedman and Marshall face challenges and the facts of the case unfold.
This entire ensemble cast handled both the movies themes and believably recreating this time period with skill and grace. This felt like a visit to the past showing people as multifaceted and real all without playing to unfounded stereotypes or relying on overblown caricatures of racism or violence or threat to get its message across. Everyone remains recognizable, humanized and the audience should be all the more rightfully dismayed by certain portrayals because of it. Sterling K. Brown brings a depth of emotion to his portrayal of an unjustly accused (but far from perfect man) defendant that he’s breathed life into the usually paper-thin stereotypical versions usually offered up by scripts that his raised the bar for all future version of this character type. I wanted to see more of the relationship between Friedman and Marshall because it was at turns hilarious, ironically tragic, yet always absorbing; but watching their ultimate partnership emerge alongside the facts and truths of this case was fascinating and an insightful way to tell a buddy-story outside the realm of comedy films.
Marshall is a riveting look at a layer beneath the surface and behind “the name” Thurgood Marshall. It’s a portrayal at period both gorgeous for its rich cultural renaissance and grotesque for the insidious hate it’s built on. In a time where biopics draw from a barely tapped well of realism and focus on historical figures, not in the usual vein.
It’s not without its limitations – there’s one pivotal moment in court where the lack of difference in the skin color of the defendant and Thurgood regretfully fails to send its greater message – or reliance on standard crime drama tricks (the twist is no big reveal if you’ve been alive for more than five minutes) but it lands perfect body blows with a velvet glove around the steel fist of its message.
Marshall illustrates in a way most films can’t (or won’t) that Black people need anyone to teach them about sacrifice, struggle, or grit; we need folks to get out-of-the-way. All to the better, Marshall sends its message with style, grace, undeniable talent, and truth.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5