Marshall Does Justice to the Civil Rights Trailblazer

Amidst the current crop of films articulating modern criticisms of racial justice and paying homage to the Civil Rights Movement, Reginald Hudlin’s biopic of Thurgood Marshall is a true gem. It is an incredibly accessible and informative portrayal of the great NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney, later the first African-American Justice on the Supreme Court. Chadwick Boseman might not physically resemble Marshall’s countenance very much (he made a more convincing Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up), but like in his other biographical roles, Boseman exquisitely captures his subject matter’s voice and spellbinding oratory.

What makes Marshall such a great film is that it avoids many of the pitfalls of the genre; instead of trying to span the entirety of the most prolific Supreme Court litigator in U.S. history, it focuses on one single case — and not Brown v. Board of Education or any one of the dozens of landmark Marshall-litigated cases that could be the subject of their own silver screen histories, but a long-forgotten criminal matter that showcased a young Marshall’s skills as a trial lawyer. The portrayal of the non-fictional case State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, in which a black chauffeur was accused of rape and attempted murder of Eleanor Strubing, a wealthy socialite, is surprisingly poignant 76 years later.

Had Marshall depicted a criminal trial in the Deep South or even a border state where many of the protagonist’s cases were located, it would have likely succumbed to the clichés of most courtroom dramas and civil rights histories. But the film is set in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1941, the seat of a then much more homogenous Fairfield County where the racism was not quite as overt as in Marshall’s typical venues — but it nonetheless infected the daily administration of justice. Hudlin reminds Yankee moviegoers that this is not a moral meant only for To Kill a Mockingbird or Mississippi Burning.

Furthermore, the mundane operation of the police and the courts in 1941 comes across as an alien landscape to any currently practicing lawyer who has only known the Constitution as reimagined by the Warren Court’s incorporation of the Bill of Rights to the states and Thurgood Marshall’s resuscitation of the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause. Prior to Chambers v. Florida, defendants were often convicted of serious felonies with no evidence but confessions, coerced by crude torture. Prior to Furman v. Georgia, states could carry out the death penalty even if it was meted down in an arbitrary and discriminatory pattern. With every step along the way of the trial, Hudlin foreshadows that this was the stark quotidian reality which Marshall would one day revolutionize.

The cutting, direct attorney had a gift for making plain the absurdities of prosecutors’ cases and convincing even the most unsympathetic juries — quite often racially segregated juries — towards his logic. Bit by bit, he shreds the prosecution’s theory into an amalgamation of patent nonsense, untruths and impossibilities, sowing into jurors the sprouts of reasonable doubt. The distillation of complex and erudite legal concepts into readily-accessible notions of basic injustice was one of Marshall’s greatest skills, and Boseman’s delivery thereof is nothing less than spellbinding.

What is also great about this film as a piece of popular history is that it doesn’t give in to the Great Man school of history — Thurgood Marshall did not conduct the Civil Rights Movement as a one man show, but rather led the way, drafting a multiracial, multidenominational coalition of other lawyers in private practice (an inherently risk averse, conservative lot). In Marshall, the legal profession is personified by Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance defense litigator who becomes lassoed into the Spell defense team — Marshall is not admitted to practice in Connecticut courts, so Friedman’s troublemaking brother files a pro hac vice application in Friedman’s name to sponsor his appearance. Friedman is livid. The strict Judge Foster (James Cromwell) admits Marshall pro hac vice under one condition — that he does not speak, and that the reluctant Friedman (who has no experience in criminal defense) must make all oral arguments and examinations.

As a Jew in 1941, during an era in which Connecticut still allowed racially exclusive covenants on real property and people of his kind were still subject to discrimination in college admissions, employment, and immigration, Hudlin makes the audience aware of Friedman’s Otherness — in a way that American Jews of my generation will never understand. Yet Friedman has the privilege of financial security and passing as white before juries and in public — at least until his anonymity is lost with the uproar over the Spell case. Friedman needs Marshall for his expertise in criminal defense, but Marshall needs Friedman for his foothold into the rarified, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant-dominated world of Connecticut courts. This author must confess his bias: as a civil litigator of Semitic extraction, standing on the sidelines as America’s cities smolder with rage against contemporary racial inequities in the American criminal justice system, Gad’s character speaks to me as a clarion call for the ethical responsibilities of all attorneys to contribute to pro bono duties.

My favorite scene in the film is when Marshall and Friedman are conducting voir dire of prospective jurors. The prosecutor succeeds in striking the only African-American juror. When encountered with a white blonde woman with a Southern drawl, a North Carolina transplant, Friedman makes the gut reaction that he should exercise one of his peremptory challenges. But Marshall makes a more poignant and relevant argument not to strike: “See the way she’s holding her arms? She likes you.”

In the voir dire scene, Marshall reminds Friedman that the purpose of an attorney is not to make a statement but to zealously advocate for the client. With a nod, he implies that the full promise of equality of the law and antiracism means that liberals, of all people, cannot engage in bigotry against individual members of the white cis-hetero-patriarchy. The entire time, you can’t help but think of Marshall’s biting concurrence in Batson v. Kentucky (Marshall would opine that the only way to end racial discrimination in voir dire is “eliminating peremptory challenges entirely”).

Marshall is a must-see, especially during this modern wave of civil rights activism directed towards discriminatory acquittals by juries of persons indicted for murder and manslaughter. Unlike some other recent films of the genre, Hudlin’s statements of application to current events is relatively subtle. In one scene, you are introduced to Marshall conducting intake with prospective clients, the mother and father of a defendant in Mississippi accused of killing a police officer. The camera focuses on the clients. You recognize their faces; it’s apparent by the way they tell their lines that they are not actors. Young Thurgood Marshall’s clients are played by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.

Boseman’s best scene is his speech to the reporters on the courthouse steps, decrying the racial discrimination so pervasive in the courts that it sets doubt that a black defendant can have a fair trial. America’s sordid history in the courts tended to suggest that the answer is still no. “But now we have the law. We have the Constitution.” Marshall’s heroics made that reality in America’s courtrooms ever much more so.