Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Movie with Abe: Marshall

Directed by Reginald Hudlin
Released October 13, 2017

Great people deserve to be profiled, and when films come out about them, it’s a chance for the world to get to know someone that may not be familiar to the latest generation. In the case of Thurgood Marshall, travel enthusiasts may recognize his name from its association with BWI Airport in Washington, and others will know that he was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. To tell his story, this film zeroes in one influential case early in his career with the NAACP, a landmark instance in which he was forced to confront rampant racism that threatened to convict his client based on the color of his skin alone.

Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) arrives in Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who has been accused of raping and trying to kill his white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The unsympathetic judge (James Cromwell) refuses to allow Marshall to speak in court, forcing him to stand silently behind a white insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who works to dispute the evidence alleged by the prosecutor (Dan Stevens) and show that the deck has been unfairly stacked against his client.

So many moments during this case are upsetting for the blatant way in which white witnesses are presumed to be telling the truth while the word of a black man is questioned at every turn. The evident bias of the judge is particularly problematic, and his denial of Marshall’s request to represent Spell means that Marshall must deliver compelling speeches through the initially unwilling Friedman, who can’t possibly relate to Spell’s life experience, though his own encounters with anti-Semitism as a Jew in America right before World War II are featured throughout the film. The notion, posited by Marshall early on in the film, that Spell and Strubing might have had sex but that it was consensual, is one that goes over particularly poorly, promptly angry responses from both the prosecution and the judge for daring to suggest such a horror aloud.

It’s never easy to watch a film that depicts a time in history where these discriminatory opinions were not just held by people throughout America but presented in legal arguments, and this film manages to tell its story in a compelling way that’s assisted by humor thanks mostly to the dynamic that Marshall and Friedman have. Bozeman, who stars as the title character in the recently released “Black Panther,” portrays Marshall as a determined, immutable advocate, while Gad turns in a relatively serious performance that comes off well. Emmy winner Brown is also well-cast, and Cromwell, Hudson, and Stevens are certainly convincing in their depiction of unapologetic racists of the time. This film isn’t a sweeping biography of Marshall and all of his achievements, which would surely be interesting, but it does select a worthwhile excerpt from his incredible life and do a great job conveying a piece of his legacy.


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