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It was a pre-racial-integration case like many others, a poor black man accused of assaulting and raping a wealthy white woman; one person’s word against the other’s, and guess who wins. But this one was a bit different in that one of the two attorneys for the defense was Thurgood Marshall, in the early 1940s working for the NAACP and two decades later to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall is a solid, straightforward courtroom drama with proud liberal credentials, one that could have been made by Norman Jewison around 1967. But it remains to be seen if, at this particularly fraught moment of heightened racial sensitivities, a modern audience will care to sit still for this traditionally told old-fashioned history lesson.
Written by Michael Koskoff, a veteran civil rights lawyer with no previous film credits, and his screenwriter son Jacob (The Mark Pease Experience, Macbeth), this is director Reginald Hudlin’s first feature in 15 years as well as his first non-comedy. The filmmakers waste no time getting down to basics, immediately setting up the pairing of two young attorneys to defend what, after having generated sensational headlines locally in Bridgeport, Connecticut, looks like a virtually open-and-shut case. Running this fool’s legal errand is local Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who has heretofore only handled insurance and accident cases, never criminal ones, and Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), a black Baltimore attorney in his early thirties who’s already made a name for himself arguing civil rights cases.
Release date: Oct 13, 2017
The alleged miscreant is Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black man who’s been working for the wealthy Eleanor Sturbing (Kate Hudson) and one night, allegedly, raped her repeatedly, then tied her up and drove her, in her Rolls-Royce, out to a nearby bridge, where she ended up in the river. Meeting his attorneys for the first time, Spell emphatically states, “I never touched that woman.”
Finding out whether or not that’s true takes the rest of the film, but the real interest lies in the very odd-couple pairing of the defenders. There’s a big jolt right at the outset when the aged judge (James Cromwell) rules that, while Marshall may remain on the defense team, he will not be allowed to speak in court because he’s not a member of the Connecticut bar. This throws Friedman into a panic, but they muddle through, with Marshall writing proposed statements and questions down for the flustered novice.
Marshall pushes hard for female representation on the jury and, before the trial starts, the defense holds out hope that its ace in the hole may be a local cop who pulled Spell over that night and maintains that the driver was alone in the car. But Spell has plenty of bad personal history going against him, and the doctor who examined Sturbing testifies that she had injuries consistent with having been raped.
What happened on the night in question is visualized in accordance with Sturbing’s testimony, done in routine docudrama re-creation fashion familiar from countless other courtroom stories. Also thrown in almost as a matter of course are perfunctory scenes showing the defense attorneys being threatened by local racist thugs. But things do get interesting when Marshall’s acute antennae tell him that both Spell and Sturbing are lying about what happened between them, triggering some intriguing late-innings maneuvering.
In accord with the film’s title, the visiting attorney gets the lion’s share of the attention and credit here. As the tale is related, most of the key decisions on how to defend the case were his, and a few scenes follow Marshall elsewhere — including on a visit to a New York club where Langston Hughes is among those at his table, and some with his wife at a time when she lost a baby during pregnancy.
The ever-impressive Boseman, who’s lately been spending most of his time enacting Black Panther for Marvel, delivers a strong and confident reading of Marshall. The man was in his early 30s at the time of this case, quite experienced at handling both the pressure and the prejudice he had to deal with daily and, from the evidence, quite shrewd in maneuvering around it all.
Something a bit closer to equal time might have been provided to Gad’s Friedman, who as a Jew in upper-crust Connecticut was operating under his own set of community prejudices that would have been interesting to see further illuminated. One feels the weight of it all pressing in on him from all sides, this on top of his considerable insecurities over his courtroom inadequacies, but a scene or two more with Friedman apart from Marshall would have given Gad the chance to give more shadings to his character.
Despite its sensationalist aspects, the case doesn’t really seem to erupt into the enormous powder keg it might have, so, on its merits, it’s doubtful anyone would have detected a film waiting to be made of it were it not for Marshall’s involvement. It’s interesting enough, but that’s not usually sufficient recommendation to get audiences out to a theater.
Production companies: Hero Film, Chestnut Ridge, Hudlin Entertainment
Distributor: Open Road Films, Starlight Media
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Sophia Bush, Jussie Smollett, Marina Squerciati, Barett Doss, Ahna O’Reilly, Jeremy Bobb, Derrick Baskin
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenwriters: Michael Koskoff, Jacob Koskoff
Producers: Paula Wagner, Jonathan Sanger, Reginald Hudlin
Executive producers: Luo Lei, Chris Bongime, Hunter Ryan, Daniel Ryan, Tom Ortenberg, John Capetta, Kevin Lamb
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Tom McArdle
Casting: Vickie Thomas, Kathleen Chopin
Rated PG-13, 120 minutes
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