In “Marshall,” the old is new again. Reginald Hudlin, producer of “Django Unchained” and director of “The Ladies Man” and “House Party,” with writers Michael Koskoff and Jacob Koskoff, have turned a forgotten case from Thurgood Marshall’s long history into something memorable.
Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Get on Up”) plays a young Marshall as he was in the early 1940s: a swaggering hotshot lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. This is long before he argued Brown v. Board of Education and longer still before he became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. The iconic thick-rimmed glasses and robes are gone, replaced with a wide-brimmed fedora and a wide-lapelled pinstripe suit.
The film is an origin story; an invitation to “witness the rise” of a hero. With that, comes an emphasis on physicality, something rawer and less cerebral than how the country’s highest judges pose. This Marshall literally hammers his point home at one point and bare knuckle brawls at another.
The portrayal is something like that of a wandering gunslinger, with Marshall riding into town by rail and taking on all-White juries and White judges in the defense of Black men accused solely based on their race. Win or lose, he’s on the next train out of town because there’s never a drop in the workload and marauding gangs of White supremacists aren’t far behind. Fascism encroaches at home and abroad: Every radio in the background is updating on the Nazi advance through Europe.
Pop culture also pegs the film in time. Marshall rubs elbows with Howard classmate and literary heavyweight Langston Hughes and the central case of the film, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, is described by Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP, as something “straight out of ‘Native Son.’”
Far from the rural wilds of the Deep South, the Spell case takes place in seemingly “enlightened” Connecticut. The state was de facto segregated at the time. In 1996, the NAACP returned in an attempt to fully dismantle segregation and prevailed in court, but 20 years later the project remains incomplete.
Joseph Spell, portrayed by Sterling K. Brown (“The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story”), a chauffeur for the Strubing family, stands accused of the rape and attempted murder of Eleanor Strubing. If Spell is innocent, Strubing has lied, a near radioactive notion in some circles. It’s handled as deftly as something so pernicious can be.
“It is fraught,” said Dr. Peaches Henry, English Professor, Waco, Texas after seeing the film at a July screening in Baltimore. “Looking from a 21st century perspective, as a woman, you want to identify with that White woman. That’s a difficulty that a lot of Black women face, we want to identify with their man but at the same time we want to identify with women. They’re our sisters, they’re our men, they’re our brothers. It’s a complicated thing.”
The aforementioned screening, hosted by the NAACP at Landmark Harbor East ended with a round of applause. The audience lit up at the brief cameo by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s parents.
Minnie McFadden, a retired school librarian from southern New Jersey, enjoyed it as a work of history, particularly African-American history, she said.
“It’s great because I didn’t know this story about Thurgood Marshall,” McFadden said. “I did know other stories and his image from documentaries and have read some books about some others, but this particular story I did not know about. It was entertaining, it was thrilling, and sad at some points but definitely entertaining and getting his story out there as a full-throated feature, it was awesome.”
“Marshall” is slated for wide release Oct. 13.