Movie Review: Marshall (2017)
If you’re wondering why it’s Connecticut v. Joseph Spell rather than any number of Thurgood Marshall’s more famous civil rights cases, particularly Brown v. Board of Education, it’s because the film’s screenwriter, Michael Koskoff, is a plaintiff’s attorney from Bridgeport, Conn. A colleague had researched the Spell case extensively and encouraged Koskoff, who had defended a member of the Black Panthers in the early ’70s, and whose family has a performing arts background, to write a screenplay about it. So he did. His son, Jacob, a screenwriter in Hollywood (the Michael Fassbender “Macbeth” movie), helped.
Susan Dunne, at the Hartford Courant, has a great piece on Koskoff here.
I like all of that. I like that a prestigious lawyer wrote a courtroom drama about a sensational-but-forgotten case involving one of the most famous lawyers of the 20th century. I like Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Thurgood Marshall, full of pop and verve and charm, and I like the sense of him as a marshal, a Lone Ranger, going from town to town and righting wrongs. I like the cameo at the end that lets us know the distance we haven’t traveled.
I just wish I’d liked the movie better.
Friedman > Gad
We get too many subplots. Marshall’s wife is pregnant, they hang out with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, then she has a miscarriage. Marshall’s local counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is a young insurance-defense lawyer who is basically snookered into the case. His wife, Stella (Marina Squerciati), is angry at him for even taking it, but at the local synagogue, piqued by a bigoted friend, she comes around. Then she finds out about her family in Europe. The Holocaust looms. Crazy bigots are on every other street corner, and synchronize attacks on Marshall and Friedman. The lawyers have battle scars. Oh, and one of the jurors has a thing for Friedman.
In reality, Friedman was an attorney in good standing who mostly needed counseling on how to present racial matters, not how to present a criminal-defense case. This description of Friedman by Daniel J. Sharfstein for Legal Affairs in 2005 is way more interesting to me than the movie’s fumbling version:
A few years older than Marshall, Friedman had practiced law with his brother, Irwin, since the 1920s. Unassuming in his dark three-piece suit and matching bow tie, his short black hair neatly combed back, Friedman was developing a reputation as a tenacious advocate with a flair for courtroom drama.
And why didn’t we get this scene?
Bridgeport was not a hospitable city for African-Americans: A 1933 Connecticut law banning discrimination in public places was not enforced. Friedman was allowed to take Marshall to lunch at the Stratfield Hotel restaurant only because he was the hotel’s lawyer.
Spell (Sterling K. Brown, Chris Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson) was accused by his employer, prominent socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), of rape and attempted murder, and right from the beginning (not at the end of the second act, as in the movie), Spell tells his lawyers that it was consensual sex. It’s basically he said/she said—but with the “he” black and the “she” white and well-connected. His story has fewer holes but you’re dealing with all-white jury in 1941. So who knows? I like that, too. It’s not super obvious which way the jury will go.
By the time the jury delivered its verdict (not guilty), Marshall, as in real life, had already moved on to another town and another case, but the movie implies that Strubing wanted something from Spell after it was over. Tenderness? Forgiveness? At least publicly, that wasn’t the case. From The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1941:
Mrs. Eleanor Strubing, socially prominent Greenwich (Conn.) woman whose Negro butler was acquitted last week of charges that he attacked her, said today "the verdict leaves the women of America at the mercy of any one who may seek their ruin. ... The law has failed utterly in this case. My indignation is boundless.”
The state’s governor, too, was swamped with mail saying the verdict was “beyond all belief” and “a disgrace to Connecticut,” while the district attorney, Loren Willis (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”), considered an appeal. It was like the O.J. verdict; white people were incensed.
What’s odd and tone-deaf about the movie, particularly in this weekend when Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment is all over the news, is how the defense discredits Strubing’s story. They imply she’s lying because she didn’t go for help; she didn’t scream. It ignores what panic does to people. I felt like I could’ve argued her case better than the D.A.
Overall, “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hudlin (“House Party,” “The Ladies Man”), is a sleeker, glossier version of history than I like, but the ending, particularly once you know the cameos, is powerful.
Marshall continues on to his next case (in reality Oklahoma, here Mississippi), where, via a bad phone connection, he gets the good news from Friedman. He smiles and leans against the wall ... and into the picture we see a “Whites Only” drinking fountain. I would’ve liked just that, just that reminder, but the movie demands Marshall get all Jane Pittman on us, drinking from the fountain before walking out to meet his new clients in his next civil rights case. Who are they? Parents dealing with the horrors a racist system does to their children. Why is that powerful? They’re played by Trayvon Martin’s parents.
It’s like Marshall has stepped through the past and into our time. It’s like that role, that Lone Ranger role, moving from town to town and trying to extract a small piece of justice, never ends.