“Marshall”

 

            This biopic about Thurgood Marshall as a young civil rights attorney suffers from cliché and stereotyping, but carries a clear narrative and features several strong performances, most notably the lead actor, Chadwick Boseman (yes, the one who played both James Brown and Jackie Robinson).

            It's the 1950's, and America is still blatantly racist.  Blacks are routinely denied equal opportunity, discriminated against in admission to public institutions, and randomly harrassed by white supremacists, with little, if any, consequence.  Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) is the lawyer for the NAACP who travels to different communities to assist in legal representation, in cases which appear to feature clear racial bias.

            In this particular case, a Connecticut society woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), accuses her chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of raping her and throwing her in the reservoir, then driving away.  When Mr. Marshall arrives, he questions Mr. Spell very carefully, wanting to know if he is innocent of the crime, and when he claims he is, Mr. Marshall takes the case.  Except nothing is as simple as it appears.

            For starters, Mr. Marshall is not licensed to practice in that State, so he has to team up with a local attorney, but not surprisingly, no one is enthused about partnering with him.  Finally, a Jewish civil attorney named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is recruited, and assured that all he would have to is introduce Mr. Marshall to the Court, and then he could take his leave.

            But No.  The Judge (James Cromwell) insists that though Mr. Marshall can be present at the defense table, only Mr. Friedman may address the court.  So thus begins an awkward apprenticeship.  Friedman has never tried a criminal case in his life.  Marshall insists on taking the lead in every decision from jurors selected to when to object, and sometimes they don't agree on every strategy.  But Friedman turns out to be as quick a pupil as Marshall is an adept teacher.  And when the details of the case turn out to be not quite what they first appeared, Friedman and Marshall are going to need all their skills against a formidable (but arrogant) prosecuting attorney, Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens).

            Though hopefully we've come a long way since racial attitudes in those days, it's still uncomfortable witnessing the active random persecution by almost all the white characters in the film. (Mr. Friedman is shown enduring his beratings and beatings because of his Hebrew heritage.)  But it's also inspiring to see how the country stumbled its way to a set of Supreme Court precedents that truly seek to treat everybody as equal under the law, even if, arguably, that's not the way the “Founding Fathers” actually envisioned things. 

            The courtroom drama is well-played, and made particularly memorable by the constant shading of light and darkness by veteran television Director Reginald Hudlin.  The good guys win, and justice prevails.  But of course the societal struggle against racial discrimination is far from over.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What instances have you seen of racial discrimination in our society?

2)                  What instances have you seen of racial discrimination in other countries?

3)                  What would it take to achieve true racial equality?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association