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Marshall (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 118 minutes.


Chadwick Boseman, who did such a marvelous job portraying Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), now takes on Justice Thurgood Marshall, also portraying him as a young man rather than the crusty, unsmiling Supreme Court Justice that is in most of our memories, at least mine.

This is the tale of a 1940 case in which Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur with a checkered past, was accused of raping his employer, white socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The case of Connecticut v. Spell charged him with sexual assault and attempted murder.

Marshall was a young attorney for the NAACP who did most of his work in the South. This case brought him into the upper class white environs of Connecticut, where the case had caused a newspaper frenzy.

The film shows incredible bias by the judge, Colin Foster (James Cromwell), who reluctantly allows Marshall to be present during the trial, but forbids him from speaking. I can find no authority for this. From the meager evidence Iíve been able to find about the trial Marshall voluntarily chose to have the lead counsel be Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad).

The film shows Friedman as being a young attorney with no experience in criminal cases who was forced into participating in the case against his wishes. Contrary to this Hollywood Twist, Friedman had practiced law with his brother, Irwin, since the 1920s. He was no nervous novice, although he did have no experience in criminal matters.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, itís from a script by Michael Koskoff, an attorney who knew about the case and thought it should be a movie, and Jacob Koskoff. It even has an original song, ďStand Up for Something,Ē by Diane Warren and Common.

Cromwell gives a good performance as the biased, unfair judge, but I question the validity of this portrayal. It could just be another Hollywood Twist to add unneeded tension to an already good story. While Boseman gives a fine performance, the person who really stands out is Gad, even if his portrayal of Friedman is probably less than accurate.

Even though this is pretty much like what one sees on the TV series Law and Order, and is as entertaining, I shrink from accepting Hollywood versions of factual events, knowing that todayís filmmakers lean over backwards to insert every bit of bias into their films that they can get away with.  From what little Iíve been able to discover about the case though, despite the discrepancies mentioned herein, the story is pretty much in line with the facts that Iíve been able to uncover and combines information with entertainment well.

It certainly left me with a different impression of Justice Marshall, from dour to ebullient, and thatís a good thing. I did speak with one person who had seen the real Marshall in person and he confirmed that, at that time at least, he was more like the man in this picture than the one in my memory.

However, one of my UVA law school classmates told me that when he argued a case before SCOTUS Marshall slept through his argument and then wrote the opinion against him.