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When the courtroom drama is at its best, it is both a suspenseful mystery story and a thoughtful meditation on the hypocrisies and injustices of society. The courtroom is the gladiatorial arena for the ongoing clash between our highest ideals as exemplified by the law and our petty biases as shown by our attempts to circumvent those ideals. However, the goal of these movies isn’t simply to whine about society’s inadequacies, but to use the stiff bristles of intelligent legal debate to scrub off the tarnish of corruption and reveal the shining American values beneath. To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, A Few Good Men, Inherit the Wind, and A Soldier’s Story did it right. And now Marshall joins those illustrious films by also doing it right — and then some.
Marshall follows a young, brash Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) as he defends a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) accused of raping a prominent white woman (Kate Hudson) in 1941 Connecticut. What makes the courtroom dramas like Marshall and those listed above particularly effective is that they are, with the exception of A Few Good Men, set in the monochromatic past. We look back on a time in which people routinely believed that it was OK to act in ways contrary to the U.S. Constitution. At first, we can feel a little smug as we shake our heads at their provincial racism, misogyny or faux patriotism. But as we continue to watch, we begin to understand that the past is a potent mirror to the present and that we have not traveled as far from dark irrationality as we’d hoped. That recognition is meant to shock us woke. Marshall does just that by jump-starting our social conscience while at the same time dazzling us with a riveting story.
When I recently spoke to Marshall director Reginald Hudlin, I told him I was especially impressed with how he managed to balance the legal thriller with social commentary. I asked him whether he did that to make the film more accessible and less preachy. “Yeah, I think genre saves you from self-indulgence,” Hudlin explains. “If you say: ‘Look, even if your mission is to send a message, it better be in an efficient delivery system. And if your vehicle is not at first and last an entertaining film, then the whole thing fails.’”
What makes Hudlin’s film especially compelling is that the main characters are all members of oppressed groups who are defined by how they react to that oppression. With the exception of Marshall, they all react with understandable fear from living their lives marginalized by society. Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), the Jewish lawyer who is reluctantly dragged into helping Marshall, deals with religious oppression by living as invisibly as possible and trying not to offend anyone. Joseph Spell, the accused, lies to not upset the status quo that could result in his death, and Eleanor Strubing, the accuser, lies to not only save her life from an abusive husband, but to avoid the stigma of being a white woman who’s had sex with a black man.
When I mentioned this to Hudlin, he says, “It’s funny because you defined them as living in fear, which is decidedly true. It’s also a movie about allies, right? It’s about people coming together to overcome your fears of obstacles. Friedman and Marshall aren’t from the same place. They’re dealing with oppression differently, but ultimately Marshall frees Friedman from this very unsatisfying existence, which is from a sense of mission. Marshall also does the same thing for Spell just from the courage to stand up.”
Though the other characters have their moments of heroism, it is Marshall’s steadfast courage and moral certainty that inspires the others to find their inner hero. In that way, Marshall fits right into Hudlin’s pantheon of black heroic “cats who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about,” from Django Unchained (which he co-produced) to his writing of the Black Panther comic books. “Well, who doesn’t love heroes?” Hudlin says with a laugh. “I mean, that is such a central part of the American cinematic experience. You grow up on John Wayne and Indiana Jones and you go: ‘Great! I want mine.’”
And by “mine” he means that the roster of heroes doesn’t have to be all white, they can come from diverse ethnic and gender backgrounds. “And you know what?” he continues. “The rest of the world agrees. I mean, when you look at that first wave of films of the 1970s with Shaft and Super Fly and Foxy Brown, those are low-budget films that create iconography that still resonates 40 years later. That speaks to the hunger worldwide for a diverse range of heroes.”
This notion of hero as savior may be why, instead of focusing on more famous cases in Marshall’s life such as his ground-breaking Brown vs. Board of Education in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which dealt a staggering blow to segregation, this story is about a time in Marshall’s life when he acted as a kind of legal gunslinger for the NAACP, traveling the country defending African Americans unable to get fair trials because of their color. Between 1930 and 1972, 455 men were executed for rape, 405 of whom were black. If not for Marshall and the NAACP, that number would have been much greater. This is the kind of hero who can not only win over a jury, but also tame a town, and maybe a country. “It’s a courtroom drama, but it’s also kind of a Western,” Hudlin acknowledges. “Thurgood comes to town, delivers justice, and then he’s got to go to the next town…. And that’s where his name came from: Marshall. It’s his last name, but it’s also who he is.”
Yes, he’s the heroic marshal — more Jimmy Stewart’s sharp wit than John Wayne’s swagger — but he is not without tarnish of his own. His obsession with his Cause means he neglects his loving and supportive wife. When she’s taken to the hospital after yet another miscarriage, he tells her by phone, “I should have been there.” Her silent response confirms his inadequacy.
Worse, in order to get the truth from Mrs. Strubing, Friedman and Marshall attack her story of being raped as not credible because she didn’t fight back, even though she testified that Spell wielded a knife. This is where the modern audience will be torn. We know she’s lying and we want the truth to come out to free an innocent man. Yet, we are horrified at the tactic of berating the “victim” for not fighting back against an armed man. This is shaming and blaming the victim, which statistics show we still do in cases of rape more than any other crime. I asked Hudlin about how he balanced wanting to remain historically accurate with the awareness that contemporary audiences might be aghast at that widely discredited and distasteful legal tactic. He realized it was a dilemma: “Well, this was a case that happened in 1940…. I think any right-thinking person is going to feel protective of a woman who says she was sexually assaulted. I mean, that’s a horrific thing…. But it comes down to what is the truth? Yeah, we could look back in hindsight, and go: ‘Oh, that’s inappropriate.’ But we’re talking about [the historical accuracy of] the moment.”
Reginald Hudlin has been a powerful voice for diversity in Hollywood. In 2015, he wrote that the Oscars’ lack of black actors being nominated was due to “racial fatigue.” Has Hollywood evolved past that embarrassment, or is it still not seeing black films as serious contenders? Does one Moonlight suggest a cultural shift, or will it be as it is in politics: the triumph of an Obama followed by the backlash of a Trump? “I think we’re in actually a very good period for black films,” Hudlin says. “If you look at the past year, every quarter there has been a film that in previous times would be considered — or that would say: ‘Oh, that’s an over-performance.’ If you look at Straight Outta Compton last summer, then Hidden Figures that fall, then Get Out in the new year and then Girls Trip. None of those movies fit the standard profile of a ‘black-themed film’ that will gross over $100 million. But they all did. So, there’s all these rules that say: ‘Oh if you don’t have Will Smith or Denzel Washington, you can’t break out like that. Oh, those subject matters? Those are niche subject matters. The mainstream audience doesn’t care about those things.’ But that’s just not true. If you had that many data points in a row, at a certain point you have to say: ‘These movies aren’t overperforming. We are underestimating them.’”
Hudlin’s film and literary work promotes the American ideals of equality, while his work as producer of the NAACP Image Awards and the 88th Academy Awards (with Chris Rock hosting) has promoted black artists. I asked him if his social activism was an extension of his ancestors, who had been active in the Underground Railroad. “My family, up to my mother and father, have a long history of community service and social justice,” he replies. “And I think that’s part of being a good citizen. I think we all carry that obligation, so I’m fortunate in that I get to express that in my profession and the work that I love. But yes, I feel that is an obligation that I carry happily.”
With Marshall, he has carried that obligation with grace and dignity — a grace and dignity that all who watch the film will share in, not because of any specific ethnicity, but because of our shared humanity.
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