Hidden Gem: ‘Marshall’ (2017)

By Syd Slobodnik

Any tribute to Black History Month in the world of movie entertainment, especially this year, must include the remarkable contributions of the late Chadwick Boseman. He will most likely be nominated posthumously for his incredible performance as Levee, the jazz trumpeter in the screen adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In the last decade, his work in the film included the real-life sports hero Jackie Robinson in “42” and the fictional T’ Challa, heir to the kingdom of Wakanda in “Black Panther.”

Still another outstanding Boseman performance was in director Reginald Hudlin’s 2017 gem, “Marshall.”  Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall, the crusading lawyer and defender of civil rights. It is a beautiful, riveting biography of the first African American Supreme Court Justice, from his earliest days as an NAACP lawyer defending the underrepresented and the wrongly accused.

Director Hudlin works from a script by Michael and Jacob Koskoff and presents a renowned historical figure’s relatively standard biographical narrative. But this film is anything but mundane or by the numbers because Boseman’s exceptional acting abilities make you pay constant attention to his character’s drive for justice. 

The story begins in 1941 where the NAACP requests Marshall to defend a young black man accused of rape and attempted murder of a socialite woman he worked for as a chauffeur in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Hudlin briefly develops bits of Marshall’s personal life with several scenes with his young wife. One night on the town, they meet in a nightclub with poet Langston Hughes and novelist Zora Neale Hurston and late one other evening, she reveals that she’s pregnant.

Leaving his wife in New York, Marshall will work with a local inexperienced defense attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) and attempt to save the life of the accused Joseph Snell (Sterling K. Brown), who was forced into a confession.

The prosecuting attorneys, led by Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), barely hide their racist prejudices. Even the presiding Judge Carl Foster (James Cromwell) seems only slightly less racist than the prosecution. He initially questions why an out-of-state lawyer must act as an additional defense. Foster immediately rules Marshall will not be allowed to speak in court or cross-examine witnesses. The victim, Mrs. Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), received minimal harm during the incident and survived, reportedly being dropped from a bridge into a local lagoon.

Before the hearing, Marshall methodically examines the crime scene and pours over the incident’s police accounts. Hudlin effectively intercuts flashbacks of the actual events recreating the events depicted by the police.

In court, the first difficulties are dealt with during jury selection, as several potential jurors let slip their obvious bias toward the defendant and the Jewish lawyer representing him. The quieted Marshall silently analyzes jurors’ comments and reactions, offering advice to his colleague. After the first day, Friedman and Marshall leave the court as a mob of local reporters corners them for responses.  Marshall notes,” We know that the Constitution wasn’t written for us. But from now on, we claim it for our own.”

Within a few days, the prosecution offers a plea deal, where Snell would receive 20 years in prison and be out in 14 years on good behavior.  After medical testimony by a doctor who examined the victim, Marshall rejects the offer, and Mrs. Strubing takes the witness stand to offer her tearful memories of the eventful night. With Snell’s somewhat dubious testimony, Marshall suddenly concludes that both his client and Mrs. Strubing are not telling the complete truth. After several revelations, director Hudlin keeps the viewers anxiously waiting on the jury’s decision.

In the film’s end credits, it is noted that when Marshall became the first African American Supreme Court justice in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King telegrammed his congratulations stating, “You have proved to be a giant in your profession and your career has been one of the significant epochs of our time.” Hudlin’s film and Boseman’s performance offer entertaining confirmation of these truths.

Adding to the Marshall legacy, I’d also like to recommend the excellent 1991 mini-series “Separate but Equal,” depicting Marshall’s work in bringing Brown vs. Board of Ed to the Supreme Court, ending segregation in all public schools in the United States. Sidney Poitier played Marshall.