Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min. Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 8; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.[b]
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Black history has been a rich gold mine for socially conscious filmmakers, providing great drama that often reminds us that the war for equality is far from over. Such is the excellent new film about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, played by an actor who now is a veteran of such films, Chadwick Boseman–he played Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up. The film given us by director Reginald Hudlin and screenwriters Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff is not your usual biographical picture moving from childhood through struggle to success. Instead, it deals with the period of one year in Marshall’s early career when the 32-year old lawyer was sent by the NAACP to Bridgeport Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur-butler accused of raping and attempting to kill a white society woman. At that time Marshall was the NAACP’s lone lawyer traveling about the country (mainly in the South) saving wrongfully accused blacks from what amounted to judicial lynching and often dodging assaults on his person (of which we see a couple). His travels must have kept his wife in a stressful state, though we are shown just a couple of home scenes.
The head of the NAACP in Manhattan, who ironically bore the name of Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith), sends Marshall to the northern city to show that racism was not just a Southern problem. The New York tabloids were exploiting the rape story in nearby Bridgeport so much that many fearful whites were dismissing their black servants. The head of the Bridgeport NAACP John “Ted” Lancaster (Derrick Baskin) arranges for Marshall to meet white lawyer Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), the plan being to partner with a local lawyer in defending the accused. Friedman is anything but approving of such a partnership. Not only has he never been involved in a criminal case, his specialty being insurance claims, but he is afraid of the bad publicity that would result. The city was known for its hostility toward blacks and other minorities, and Sam himself was Jewish. However, Marshall will not take No for an answer—as Sam tells his upset wife, “He’s very persuasive.” And so, the film becomes an Odd Couple story, with frequent clashes between the two erupting as the trial progresses.
Marshall tells the defendant Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) that the NAACP, with its limited resources, will defend only the innocent. Assured by Spell that “I never touched the woman,” the lawyers show up with him in court—and run into their first roadblock. Judge Foster (James Cromwell) obviously does not like it that a black lawyer has come unbidden to his city, so he denies Marshall the right to argue the case. He does allow him to sit with and confer with Sam, but not to speak in the courtroom. When Marshall tries to ask a question later, the judge cuts him off by threatening to hold him in contempt of court.
Sam, of course had expected Marshall to do most of the arguing and cross-examination, so he is very distraught. Marshall assures him he can do the job as he hands over to him a half-dozen criminal law textbooks, telling him that he has a month to read them (until the opening of the trial).
The film intersperses all too-brief scenes of Marshall with his wife Buster Marshall (Keesha Sharp) and friends in Harlem. These friends also were high achievers, such as poet Langston Hughes and novelist-Civil Rights activist Zora Neale Hurston (Jussie Smollett and Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas). The scene of them bantering back and forth in a Harlem nightspot makes me wish for more such private life scenes. Also at scattered intervals, we see part of what happened on the terrible night in which Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) claims that Spell burst into her room and raped her two times. We see the pair in her bedroom, then her in the back of her car that he is driving, then being carried over to the ledge of a bridge and falling into the water. Each new appearance adds a bit more information. In and out of the courtroom are people taking sides, the whites outside carrying signs and shouting words of racist hatred. Both Sam and Marshall find themselves in great danger on the same night, the former on his way home and Marshall while in a bar.
Marshall is desperate to find a witness who can back Spell’s alibi. For a while it looks like they might have one, and then there is a plot twist that sends them in a new, unexpected direction and reveals the intense fear that every black person, whether living in the North or the South, feels when confronted with white justice. Marshall maintains his strong commitment to justice, declaring, “The Constitution was not written for us. We know that. But no matter what it takes, we’re going to make it work for us. From now on, we claim it as our own.” But it would take an extraordinary amount of courage, grit, and skill for him to make good on that claim. Some details of the actual trial have been changed, presumably for dramatic reasons. For an interesting account of the Bridgeport trial see Daniel J. Sharfstein’s “Saving the Race” in Legal Affairs (March/April 2005).
One of the neat little touches I love in this film is the final scene when Marshall, called away while the jury is in deliberation, has arrived at a Mississippi train station to take up a new case. After he talks with Sam on the telephone, he rounds the corner where a “Whites Only” has been placed above the drinking fountain. Marshall takes one of the paper cups and pours himself a drink. On a nearby bench an old black man smiles his approval. Outside the lawyer is met by two African American women, who promise him a good supper. They are accompanied by another black lawyer, who in the credits is identified as Z. Alexander Looby (Benjamin Crump). He is given no lines, but a thrilling film could be made based on his colorful life, Zephaniah Alexander Looby being a real person, once the leading Tennessee black lawyer engaged in so many Civil Rights cases.
Thurgood Marshall was the outstanding advocate for the legal attack on institutionalized racism, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were the leading advocates for street demonstrations against America’s “Original Sin.” (These two groups occasionally were at odds, supporters of the NAACP legal approach fearing that demonstrations resulted in too much violence that undercut their cases in the courts. A good example of this debate is shown in the wonderful 1983 PBS film For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story in which the Mississippi head of the NAACP argues this issue with his teen volunteers who want to engage in sit-ins.
I hope this film will be widely screened. Church and other religious groups should rally around and discuss it so that it will stay in the theaters for a while, rather than fade away until its video release. Films like this will make us more aware of our heritage and the need to continually stand up for justice. It can also be viewed as a character transformation film, in that Sam Friedman begins as a reluctant participant in the trial, fearful of damaging his reputation (and thus his practice) into a fierce advocate for racial justice after the trial.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.