Marshall – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Writers: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Koskoff
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson
Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was an African-American lawyer who became the first member of his race to become a member of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. This film is a re-enactment of his early career when he was cutting his teeth as a defence attorney. Marshall worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (better known as NAACP) one of whose core services was to provide legal counsel for coloured people who were charged with crimes they did not commit. In this case Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur was charged with raping his employer’s wife. She was needless to say white.
No criminal trial is simple for either the prosecution or the defence but the Spell case highlights the particular difficulties the defence team encountered. What is on display is the systemic and institutional bias that was ubiquitous throughout the United States against colored people. These prejudices existed not only in the South but as this case shows also in the North. At the beginning Hudlin has short clips which display those prejudices at various trials at different locations. It is uncomfortable to view them.
Marshall was not a member of the Connecticut bar. Therefore application had to be made to the trial judge for him to appear on behalf of Spell. On an arbitrary basis the trial judge refused the application. He was however permitted to assist the Connecticut lawyer, Sam Friedman, (Josh Gad) who had made the application. Friedman, who was Jewish, was not a criminal trial lawyer so the defence was placed by the trial judge at a disadvantage.
The film follows the necessary highs and lows that naturally occur in any trial as the evidence for each side is given. However Marshall had both an analytical mind and an ability to get stuck into the nitty gritty detail of all of the facts. A fine example of that attention to so-called petty detail is well displayed in relation to gathering evidence when he visits one of the sites relevant to the crime.
Hudlin has made this re-enactment of a famous trial and the events surrounding it with care. The acting is uniformly of a high calibre. The overall underlying racist and anti-semitic atmosphere of the times is displayed very often by telling small details – a “whites only” potable water fountain for instance.
This is a legal biopic about a young lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who was to become a great man. It shows the courage, commitment and intelligence he brought to bear on one of his early cases. In these times, when the values he represented are once more under threat, it is uplifting to watch a film which shows how one young man fought within the system for those values seventy five years ago.