This is a film that makes me proud to be both a criminal trial lawyer and a fan of the movies.
Marshall is a penetrating historical film that everyone should see, particularly trial lawyers. It tells the story of the legendary Thurgood Marshall early in his career as he was trying to save a black man wrongly accused of rape in a racially infested Connecticut town.
Serving as a trial lawyer for the NAACP in multiple states, Mr. Marshall was constantly challenging a plantation mentality that infected our criminal justice system. Smart with an ego to match, his only demand of any client was that the individual be innocent.
While this film captured my attention from beginning to end, its only weakness focused on the role of a defense attorney who appeared to put the interest of his association ahead of that of his client. When a plea offer was made to the accused known as Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), Marshall aggressively urged his client to turn it down and risk life in prison if he was convicted. As a defense attorney who has been put in that same position on numerous occasions over the years, I knew that any decision on a plea offer rests solely with the defendant and no one else.
Fortunately, the above distraction concerned a subject that most viewers will not catch. More to the point, the film concentrated on the personal relationship of Marshall and Sam Friedman, a civil attorney with no criminal experience. Friedman sought only to vouch for Marshall’s admission to the Connecticut Bar, and was stunned when the judge (James Cromwell) allowed Marshall to sit as co-counsel at the trial as long as he did not participate in any of the proceedings. Friedman’s plight reminded me of many moments over the years where I responded to a judicial ruling with the polite phrase, “yes, your honor”, while visibly biting my lip.
There are several performances that make this film a cinematic gem, and one must begin with Chadwick Boseman in his role as Mr. Marshall. Boseman brings both style and some humility to a guy whose perceived arrogance was a shield needed to survive. Additionally, Mr. Boseman has tremendous talent playing legendary figures as seen in his previous roles as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) and as James Brown in Get On Up (2014).
Josh Gad matches Boseman’s performance in his role as Mr. Friedman. His angst in being forced to represent a client he wanted to avoid extends his range beyond that of very funny characters as seen with his role as LeFou in this year’s hit Beauty and the Beast.
But as good as the above two characters were in this film, it would have never worked but for the performances of Kate Hudson and Dan Stevens. Ms. Hudson plays Eleanor Strubing, a rape victim whose credibility is brought into question at trial, while Mr. Stevens is spot-on as a prosecutor whose trial skills resembled his role as the Beast in the above-referred to film.
As I watched this movie, I was reminded of two cases in my own past. One concerned watching an innocent man die in the electric chair in 1994 and the young man that Monica and I represented on a retrial after his conviction was reversed for allegedly shooting and blinding a gas station attendant here in Indianapolis.
Though our involvement in Mr. Resnover’s execution resulted in our State banning the electric chair, it provided little comfort after watching him literally burn to death as the smell of human flesh filled the observation room. In the robbery case, the trial resulted in a hung jury with the vote being 9 to 3 for acquittal. To summarize, the prosecutor offered us a plea where our client could end his five years of incarceration and walk home with no probation if he would just plead guilty.
Though the young man was adamant that he was wrongly accused, I had to advise him that his innocence resulted in serving a 110 sentence while an admission of guilt would send him home. With tears flowing down the faces of everyone at defense counsel table, he admitted his guilt to finally be a free man.
I tell these stories only to note that the trauma experienced by Marshall and Friedman confronts lawyers in every court across our land. Thurgood Marshall would eventually argue the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in our country. His appointment to the United States Supreme Court followed a decade later.
He was a mountain of a man and this film distinguishes itself by giving you a small glimpse of his talent.