ABA Presents: Marshall

Jenna Goldman '18
(she/her/hers)
Editor-in-Chief

What else could possibly be discovered about the nation’s most famous lawyer? Turns out, quite a lot.1

The American Bar Association and Open Road Films sponsored an exclusive pre-screening of Marshall for UVa Law students and faculty at the Regal Stonefield in Charlottesville last Thursday, September 14. The film, directed by Reginald Hudlin, writer of Marvel’s Who is the Black Panther? and producer of Django Unchained, the film has been dubbed a “biographical thriller” about Justice Thurgood Marshall’s early days as a criminal trial lawyer for the NAACP.   

 Chadwick Boseman portrays Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chadwick Boseman portrays Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chadwick Boseman is tasked with playing a suave, energetic Marshall, by now well seasoned in portraying larger-than-life historical figures (he played Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film, 42, and James Brown in Get on Up in 2014). Boseman also played T’Challa/Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War and will reprise the role in the 2018 film The Black Panther.

The movie centers on one criminal case assigned to Marshall as a 32-year-old while working for the financially struggling NAACP, which is searching for a show-stopping win to attract high profile donors. 

In Connecticut v. Spell, Marshall is tasked with defending a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (played by Sterling K. Brown, who gives a gut-wrenching testimony on the stand—so good I wished Brown was given more of a speaking role). Spell is accused of sexual assault and attempted murder by his white, socialite employer named Eleanor Strubing (the dark, “damsel in distress” played by Kate Hudson) in Greenwich, Connecticut. 

The 1941 case was one of the most scandalous of the time, and coverage of the case shared the front pages of The New York Times with the start of the Second World War. The notoriety of the case sent shockwaves through the white upper class in the North, and cost black domestic workers their jobs.

The NAACP sends Marshall to Bridgeport where fumbling Connecticut attorney Sam Friedman—played by Josh Gad—reluctantly agrees to sponsor him for special admittance to the Connecticut bar. In a dramatic, not entirely shocking turn of events, the judge merely allows Marshall to act as second seat, and bars him from speaking at trial. An exasperated Friedman, who now is on the hook to defend Spell, exclaims, “But Mr. Marshall just argued before the United States Supreme Court!” To which the judge responds, “I do not see how that is pertinent to this case.”

Predictably, the vicious, slick-haired prosecutor on the case—played manically by Dan Stevens—is preparing for a Senate run, and the judge—stoically played by James Cromwell—is an old law partner of the prosecutor’s father. Even outside the Jim Crow South, the buddy-buddy Connecticut bar and the alleged rape of a white woman make Bridgeport seem awfully like Birmingham. The racism is apparent, yet subverted, perhaps in a statement to viewers about the current state of this country. 

The choice to highlight this case, where one of the most famous orators of the century is not allowed to utter a single word at trial, was a surprising one. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the film was meant to focus on the brilliance of Marshall’s trial strategy, a strategy that enthralled our audience of law students.

For those generally reluctant to watch courtroom dramas because of an obsession with searching for errors in criminal procedure, fear not. Prominent Connecticut trial lawyer Michael Koskoff wrote the screenplay with help from his son, Jacob Koskoff (screenwriter for the 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth). Koskoff has handled major race discrimination cases in Bridgeport and New Haven, and at age seventy-three, he decided to bring the story of this major Connecticut case to the world. 

Hudlin directed the film with all of the excitement and fervor of a classic superhero movie. The story had a sniveling villain, a plain-clothes savior (I wouldn’t have been surprised if Marshall tore open his dress shirt to reveal a giant “S” and cape),2 and a trusty sidekick3 out to right the injustices in a town that doesn’t see the impending storm forming around them. This courtroom thriller keeps viewers on the edge of their seats with a twisting plot, from voir dire to verdict.   

The film was more than just legalese; it pays homage beautifully to the era in which it was set (from the roaring music to the fabulous cars—one of which plays an important role in the trial). In a side scene, real-life friends Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston make an appearance in a dazzling New York City jazz bar. The scene was not necessarily in furtherance of the greater plotline, but it provided a glimpse into Marshall’s exciting outside-the-courtroom life. 

Outside of mild flirtations and a couple of stiff drinks, Marshall’s personal life is cast in a decidedly angelic light, as the film focuses almost exclusively on his legal practice. And I’m glad it did: Marshall’s brilliant lawyering provided plenty of intrigue and drama.  

As far as critique, I was left wanting many of the actors to go just one step further in their portrayal of the striking figures. Boseman had some large, frankly impossible, shoes to fill. To his credit, during the major climactic moments Boseman unleashed Marshall’s power and presence, but at other points he seemed reluctant to fully step into the part. Similarly, the conflicted Hudson could have been even nastier on the stand, and the conniving prosecutor could have been . . . more conniving. 

Casting Gad, best known for voicing Olaf the snowman in Frozen, was an interesting choice. He stepped into the dramatic role and captured the essence of a bumbling new lawyer. I was convinced by his performance most of all. 

However, my complaints are as follows: First, after researching4 further, I am not sure Friedman was given enough credit as an attorney in his own right. If historical accuracy was not the point and his character was meant to be a foil to the impressively skilled Marshall, then I concede. But Samuel Friedman was a far more accomplished lawyer, and a more willing participant, than the tongue-tied and insecure Gad portrayed him to be.

Second, and no offense to Gad, but generally Hollywood casts actors who are better looking than the real-life character; the real Samuel Friedman was actually a very handsome and slender man (I wondered if the physical choice to cast Gad was to play up a certain stereotype—but I digress). 

The partnership between the Jewish immigrant Friedman and the black, self-made Marshall, both ostracized by their profession, is one that was critical both during the Civil Rights Era and now—as protesters marched through Charlottesville they chanted racist and anti-Semitic slurs interchangeably. Marshall evokes language from the Torah and compared their shared struggles to convince Friedman to take the case. The seemingly rag-tag duo drives home an important point. 

Despite my critiques, I not only enjoyed the movie for the entertainment (I cannot emphasize the excitement in the film enough), but I felt the story was adeptly told at just the right time. There were so many components and comparisons to chew on; the theater was abuzz with discussion after the curtain fell. I will likely see the movie again, and I look forward to hearing the interviews and analysis when the film is officially released on October 13, 2017. 

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jmg3db@virginia.edu

1 I won’t spoil the ending, but the statute of limitations on spoilers of a case decided in 1941 has probably passed. 

2 I am aware that Superman is a DC comic, thanks for asking.

3 Id. 

4 https://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/March-April-2005/feature_sharfstein_marapr05.msp