MARSHALL Movie Review

By Victoria Alexander, Film Critic

Las Vegas Informer

An important look at the man who influenced and structured American civil rights laws.

At a time when the National Football League (NFL) is embroiled in controversy over some players “taking a knee” during the playing of the National Anthem, along comes MARSHALL to remind us of the recent history of racial inequity in the American justice system.

Somewhat brash, but highly competent, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), was one of very few NAACP lawyers in 1941. At only 33 years of age, Marshall already had successfully won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Working for the organization, he served as a hired gun stepping into high profile cases in which the NAACP believed that black suspects had been wrongly accused.

The majority of the film revolves around a single case, that of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black man accused of raping a white socialite in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The prejudice of the judge, prosecution team, and all-white jury are palpable.  As he was not a member of the Connecticut bar, Marshall selects Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a local Jewish lawyer to act as lead lawyer in Spell’s defense.  While experienced in civil litigation, Friedman had never tried a criminal case and was loath take it on.  As he repeatedly points out, upon completion of this case Marshall would leave the area, but Friedman has to live there and suffer the consequences of their actions.

Misidentification was not an issue. The alleged victim, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), told police that it was the family chauffeur, Spell, who had attacked her in her home and repeatedly raped her. Following that, she stated Spell tied her up, drove to a local bridge and threw her off to die. Spell was not the most sympathetic defendant. Previously he had been jailed, deserted both his wife and family, and received a dishonorable discharge the U.S. Army.  Further, the local media had stirred up emotions of the citizens of Bridgeport into a furor, a point not lost on prosecutors and jurors alike. 

That backdrop provides an excellent canvas for the courtroom drama that plays out in a convoluted case in which not everything is obvious.  Dated well before the civil rights era, it also affords insight into the racial and religious prejudices that were prevalent, not only in the Connecticut area, but nationally as well. 

For Thurgood Marshall, the Spell rape case was only one in a long list of endeavors.  He went on to become the architect of many American civil rights laws that are now taken for granted.

In 1967, it was President Lyndon Johnson who appointed Marshall as the first black Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a position he would hold until his death in 1993. 

While the Spell case offered court intrigue, focusing on that almost exclusively, seriously underplayed the important role that Marshall occupied in U.S. history.  Yes, there was a brief acknowledgement his accomplishments at the end of MARSHALL, but young moviegoers will not get an appreciation of the magnitude of events. 

When NFL legend Mike Ditka recently tweeted that “he wasn’t aware of any racial oppression in over 100 years,” then Ditka would do well to see MARSHALL and then get reacquainted with today’s players’ concerns. The events depicted in the movie occurred within his lifetime and were precursors for today’s debates. Well-acted, MARSHALL is recommended for those woefully ignorant of our historical roots. 

Victoria Alexander

For a complete list of Victoria Alexander’s movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes go to: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/author/author-3571/

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at:  victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

 

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