Look at a statue of Lady Justice, and you’ll see something interesting: She’s blindfolded. It’s a symbol of her impartiality. It doesn’t matter if the accused is rich or poor, man or woman, black or white. Guilt or innocence will be decided by the facts of the case, not its prejudicial biases. Justice will be done.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
It’s 1941. Martin Luther King Jr. is just 12 years old. “Whites only” water fountains pock the south. And Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing has accused her chauffer of rape.
She’s pretty, blond and well connected, a regular churchgoer and pillar of Greenwich, Conn., society. Her alleged rapist, Joseph Spell, is a two-timing cheater, a gambler, a former soldier with a dishonorable discharge on his record … and black.
Sure, the trial might not be in segregated Mississippi. But does it matter? Newspapers presume Spell’s guilt, stoking racial fears with bold headlines. Well-heeled Greenwich residents fire their African-American maids and butlers. The verdict might as well be in already.
But Thurgood Marshall, a hotshot young lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, isn’t so sure of Spell’s guilt.
Because he doesn’t have a Connecticut law license, Marshall connects with local attorney Sam Friedman, who has promised to file the necessary paperwork with the state. Friedman’s no criminal lawyer, and he sure doesn’t want to argue a high-profile case in court. But both he and Marshall know that his role will simply be a formality. It’s Marshall’s case to lose—and a loss seems all too likely.
The cards certainly seem stacked against Spell from the start. The prosecuting attorney, Loren Willis, is a Connecticut blue-blood being groomed for a career in politics. Willis’ father was a law partner with Judge Foster, the man now hearing the case. The jury will be all white.
And the system lands another blow: Judge Foster forbids the charismatic Marshall from being the lead lawyer in trial. Sure, he can be in court. But Foster forbids him from speaking. It’ll be up to Friedman—an attorney who specializes in tiny civil cases and who’s never taken a criminal case in his life—to try this blockbuster case.
Is justice blindfolded? Maybe. But in this Connecticut courtroom, its most powerful advocate may be gagged, too.
The real Thurgood Marshall, who died in 1993, is a civil rights legend—a lawyer who argued 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court for the NAACP before joining it himself as its first African-American justice. And his namesake movie, which focuses on one of his earliest cases, indeed casts him as a hero.
Marshall is unflinching and uncompromising in confronting racism: He drinks from “whites only” water fountains and stares down bigots. He’s brilliant, too, though the film suggests he takes on a litany of lost causes to further the greater cause—true racial equality. Marshall is also shown to be a loving husband, though he spends most of his time on the road, martyr-like, traveling from state to state to defend African-Americans who wouldn’t get a fair trial otherwise. He doesn’t charge clients for their services either: The NAACP pays him, and it declares that it only represents the innocent.
But despite the name of the movie, Marshall is as much Friedman’s story as Marshall’s. Admittedly, Friedman isn’t quite the civil rights crusader that Marshall is, at least not initially. In fact, he’d run away from the Spell case if he could. He complains that the publicity is bad for his own reputation, and his wife worries that all Friedman’s newfound notoriety will draw unwanted attention to their own Jewish community. Jews, too, are minorities in this WASP-y corner of the country: They don’t need to remind folks that they, too, are different.
But when they go to synagogue one Saturday, Friedman’s wife has a change of heart as she hears congregants expressing their race-based fears. And Friedman himself is encouraged by an acquaintance who reminds him of the prejudice their forebears dealt with in Europe, telling Friedman that his father would be proud of him. It doesn’t take long for Friedman to become perhaps Spell’s most impassioned defender—even accusing Marshall himself of mixed motives at one point.
As mentioned, Friedman is Jewish. He and his family go to synagogue. When Friedman vets people for the jury, one potential jurist says he doesn’t particularly like black people, pointedly adding, “I don’t think much of Hebrews, either.” (Friedman thanks the man for his “candor” before excusing him.) Friedman also gets assaulted in the streets one night by bigots who reference his faith.
Shortly after Marshall and Friedman learn that Marshall won’t be allowed to speak in court, Marshall references the biblical book of Exodus, when God commanded Moses to enlist his brother Aaron as his mouthpiece. Eleanor Strubing is described as a regular churchgoer several times. There’s a joking reference to an old “negro superstition.” We hear some people sincerely say, “God bless,” and there’s a reference to someone being as “spotless as the lamb of God.”
During a short visit home, Marshall and his wife, Buster, are shown in a rather intimate manner. Her shirt is open, revealing her bra, and she tells him she’s pregnant. We see him kissing her torso. (Later, we see Buster in a hospital, and it’s apparent that she’s had a miscarriage.) A woman at a bar also tries to seduce Marshall, even though he’s wearing a wedding ring.
Marshall hangs out with famous poet (and former college classmate) Langston Hughes and his male companion. (Some scholars believe that Hughes was gay, and the companion is referred to in the film’s credits as his “boyfriend,” but from the context of the film itself, their relationship feels rather ambiguous; later a woman kisses Hughes’ cheek.) Friedman and his wife kiss passionately once. Spell admits that he deserted his wife and kids and has had subsequent affairs.
[Spoiler Warning] Sex is the central issue in Spell’s criminal case, and we hear references to it. Initially, Spell insists he never touched Eleanor. Later, he admits he had sex with her, but he says it was consensual. We see flashbacks of their tryst, including sexual movements; Eleanor wears a flimsy, revealing nighty. Marshall and Friedman argue that Eleanor—who was frequently left alone by her traveling husband and under the influence of alcohol—wanted to find solace and consensual sexual companionship in Spell’s arms.
Eleanor’s version is quite different …
Eleanor claims she was raped several times during the night in question. We see flashbacks of her story: Spell brandishes a knife, ties her up and gags her with part of her own dress. She lies whimpering in the back of a car before Spell stops on a bridge, picks her up and hurls her off the edge—an attempt, Eleanor alleges, to kill her. (The defense suggests that she jumped off the bridge to commit suicide.) During the trial, a doctor says he found many bruises and cuts on her body, as well as other signs of potential sexual assault. He also testifies about finding the skin cells of a black man underneath Eleanor’s fingernails—possible evidence that Eleanor fought back against Spell.
We learn, however, that Eleanor’s husband was abusive, too. Spell sees Eleanor in a car, tending to a bloody nose as her husband storms away in a huff (bumping into Spell along the way). Later, she claims that an ugly bruise on her arm came from her husband.
Three men surround Friedman on a dark street, threatening to punish him for legally defending a black man. Friedman punches one, but they swarm over him—punching and kicking him as he lies in a fetal position on the ground. When they stop, Friedman’s face is covered in cuts, and blood runs from his mouth. Later that evening, he picks up a knife as he goes to answer the door, worried that his assailants have returned.
Marshall deals with his assailants, tool: a couple of barroom roughs determined to teach him a lesson. A fight ensues, and Marshall gives as much as he gets before the bartender points a gun at one of the thugs, telling him that he best treat Marshall with the respect that the lawyer is due.
Marshall defends someone in another case, this one in Oklahoma. During testimony, he smashes a club repeatedly on a table (causing his own client to flinch) and tells the jury that his client made a false confession after being repeatedly beaten. After the case, a few ruffians confront him at a train station. He gets on the train before any real trouble can begin, but the guys still try to “scare” him by shooting a shotgun in the air. We hear references to lynchings and violence.
Three f-words, three s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—“, “pr–k” and “n—er.” God’s name is misused at least seven times, six of those with the word “d–n.”
It’s the 1940s, which apparently means that people drank all the time. At work. At home. In bars. In any scene that takes place outside of the courtroom, there’s a good chance people are downing a martini, wine or—especially—a glass of whiskey. Marshall and others smoke, too.
Eleanor admits that she had been drinking the night of the alleged rape.
We repeatedly hear racial and ethnic slurs—some subtle, some shockingly overt. Willis tells Friedman, “I thought Jews were supposed to be smart. But you’re just like the Negro.” Friedman, as he walks away, says that just might be the nicest thing that anyone’s ever told him.
When Joseph Spell takes the stand, he’s grilled over his past: his dishonorable discharge, his extramarital affairs, and accusations of theft. He’s asked why anyone would believe his story.
“I don’t know why they should,” he says. “Except it’s the truth.”
Marshall, like most biopics, takes liberties with the facts when it comes to the real-life court case of Joseph Spell. In real life, for instance, Friedman was no novice, but an experienced criminal lawyer. And Marshall wasn’t metaphorically gagged in court, but rather took the second seat voluntarily because of his confidence in Friedman.
Those historical quibbles aside, however, the movie does give voice to a broader truth—and gives us insight to a civil rights hero who helped lay the foundation that Martin Luther King Jr. and others built upon.
Marshall’s real-life legacy is admittedly complicated. As a justice on the Supreme Court, Marshall was one of the judges who ruled in favor of abortion rights in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade.
The focus of this film isn’t that broad. It examines Marshall’s legacy through this narrow strip of time, a single trial when the young lawyer fought tirelessly to right a wrong, to save an innocent man and, most importantly, show the country that racism doesn’t just exist in places with active Jim Crow laws and “whites only” bus seats.
And through his interaction with Friedman, we see that racism is something we should all take issue with.
“This is not my problem!” Friedman complains.
“To h— it isn’t!” Marshall thunders back.
But that small snippet of dialogue illustrates the film’s nagging shortcomings, too. Marshall inspires. But it disappoints, too.
Admittedly, much of the movie’s problematic content is arguably necessary. You can’t dramatize the Spell case and not deal with sex and assault. Given the racial tensions in play—the tensions that, really, make this a story worth telling—depictions of violence and racial slurs are perhaps inescapable, too.
But those other bits of foul language, including three f-words (a rarity for a PG-13 film) disappointed me. You could easily lose them without impacting the story a whit.
Marshall’s a worthwhile story well told—one that educates, inspires and entertains, a rare trifecta. I’d like to tell everyone I know to go see it. But the script’s profanities force me to tap this film with a caveat I’d rather not make.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.