‘Marshall’: a great man’s early days

The new biographical drama “Marshall” hasn’t exactly been burning up the box office since it opened on Oct. 13, but it should have a long life in the other places where people watch movies.

Screenwriters Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff show us one brief period in the life of the U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall – his work on a Connecticut rape case in 1940 – but it illuminates the issues that would resonate throughout the great man’s life.

In the early 1940s, Marshall was a lawyer for the NAACP specializing in cases where black men were unjustly accused of crimes. Joseph Spell was a chauffeur for a Greenwich woman, Eleanor Strubing, who accused him of raping her and then trying to kill her by throwing her off a bridge.

The crime sent shock waves through Westchester and Fairfield counties where there were reports of fearful whites firing their black servants. Marshall believed in Spell’s innocence, but he also saw how the NAACP could use the case in its efforts to launch a civil rights movement.

Lawyers like Marshall who hadn’t passed the bar in Connecticut needed a local attorney to file a special application. Bridgeport lawyer Sam Friedman played that role thinking it would only require minimal courtroom presence, but when the judge announced that the outside attorney couldn’t speak during the trial Friedman had to act as Marshall’s proxy.

Reginald Hudlin directs an excellent cast in which even the smallest roles register. Chadwick Boseman, who seems destined for major stardom when “Black Panther” opens next year, plays Marshall, and Josh Gad gets his best screen opportunity yet as Friedman.

A good portion of “Marshall” is set in a courtroom but the writers and director break up the legal battle with well drawn scenes that sketch in the personal lives of the two main characters. We see that Marshall was part of the bohemian African-American artist crowd in Manhattan – his friends included the poet Langston Hughes – and the stress the case placed on Friedman’s family life and his position in the Bridgeport Jewish community adds to Gad’s fine performance.

There have been a few rumblings in social media that the prominence of Friedman in “Marshall” makes it another “white savior” movie but that seems a distortion of the movie’s determination to stick to the facts of a real case. In truth, Marshall “saved” Friedman, steering a lawyer who specialized in insurance cases into a lifelong dedication to the civil rights movement.

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