At a time where the U.S. is flooded with social unrest, evidenced by highly-controversial NFL protests and accusations of bigotry and white supremacy, Chadwick Boseman has stepped out of his role as Marvel’s Black Panther and taken on the persona of real-life superhero Thurgood Marshall. The biopic, directed by Reginald Hudlin, follows the life of a young Marshall framed by the 1940 Connecticut v. Spell case which helped solidify his role as a champion for civil rights.
The premise of the case was based on the accusations of a wealthy, white socialite named Eleanor Strubing, played by Kate Hudson, who alleged that her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell, played by Sterling K. Brown, raped her one evening in the family home while her husband was away. She professed that Spell entered her room with a knife, raped her four times and forced her to write a ransom note in preparation of her kidnapping. She said that he later tied her up and drove her to the Kensico reservoir where he threw her off of the embankment, intending to kill her.
After his arrest, Spell retold the events of the evening from a differing perspective, stating that the pair had consensual intercourse. It was at this point that Marshall, who had begun working as an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) decided to represent Spell with the help of a local Jewish lawyer, Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad in the film.
The case is seldom referenced in the recounts of Marshall’s career as it took place over a decade before Marshall challenged segregation in the infamous Brown v. Board of Education trial. It also predates his ascension to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the United States Supreme Court by more than 20 years. Given Marshall’s lengthy track record, there are many cases that could have been chosen for movie adaptation. However, no other might have shown him to be such a formidable force — especially since Judge Carl Foster, portrayed by James Cromwell, forbade him from speaking during the Spell trial, leaving Friedman to serve as his mouthpiece.
The details of the case are fascinating in and of themselves but it is the cinematography and acting that really won me over. Sitting in the theater, it felt as though I was pushed into the 1940s, an era that I’d only read about in historical texts. Somehow it felt familiar to see wooden radio dials in shiny American-built cars and women in conical-shaped brassieres. Then I felt a pang in my heart as I took in the symbols of segregation, from the water fountains labeled for different classes of people to the slavery-themed artwork that hung in the courtroom. Each stitch of clothing, flash of a vintage camera and race-based brawl took me deeper into what it would have been like to live in 1940s America. I found myself transfixed, unable to travel through time back to 2017 until the credits began to roll.
Yet, it was the acting that took centerstage — as it should. Boseman delivers a riveting performance as Marshall, matching his fierceness and mannerisms, down to the slight tilt of his mouth as he spoke. Gad, ever the comic, added a few laughable moments to the drama through witty one-liners but remained true to his character. Brown did an excellent job embodying a black man on trial in the 1940s, terrified for his life amid stories of lynching following such accusations. I was able to feel his anguish as he testified while on trial, as he weighed the options of telling the truth as he saw it or taking a plea deal to forgo a harsher verdict. Even Hudson managed to leave the audience feeling a touch of pity for the desperate housewife.
There were also little snippets that allowed viewers to peer into Marshall’s personal life with his wife, Buster, portrayed by Keesha Sharp, and their pregnancy attempts as well as gatherings with his friends Langston Hughes, played by Jussie Smollett, and Zora Neale Hurston, played by Rozonda “Chili” Thomas.
The final scene of the film served as foreshadowing for the cases that Marshall would take on later in his career, and those that we continue to face today. In this scene, Marshall moves on to Mississippi to work on a case involving a young boy where he meets the boy’s parents, played by Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of Trayvon Martin.
Go see this film and then thank me later.