The first problem with Marshall is that it’s called Marshall, leading an audience to expect a biopic about the heroic civil rights lawyer. But it’s less a profile of Thurgood Marshall than the story of a single case Marshall assisted on in 1940. In fact, it was written by a Connecticut personal injury lawyer, Michael Koskoff, who seems to have been inspired by his adult screenwriter children (Macbeth screenwriter Jacob, who gets co-writing credit on Marshall, and writer/actress Sarah Koskoff) to write a movie about a famous case from his home state in which Marshall acted as assistant counsel. Only somewhere along the line, it feels like someone realized that a case where Thurgood Marshall was a footnote wouldn’t sell nearly as well as a long overdue Thurgood Marshall biopic. So they packaged it as a biopic, but it doesn’t quite fit. Knowing this going in will explain a lot, like “Why is the movie ‘Marshall‘ about a case where Josh Gad does all the talking?”
Having been conceived by a lawyer, Marshall feels designed to present the case that Thurgood Marshall was a great man, without letting too much nuance cloud the issue. Depth, complexity, moral gradations — these are dangerous notions in a story you’re presenting before a fickle jury. Marshall takes the same approach. Better to leave out the challenging stuff and stick with the good and the evil, the black and the white, the Josh and the Gad, lest the audience… I don’t know, think too hard and pull a hammy? All of which makes Marshall a snappy watch for a middle school classroom, but sort of remedial and disappointing for anyone expecting more.
The film, directed by Reginald Hudlin (House Party, The Great White Hype) depicts the defense of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur accused of raping his white employer, Bridgeport, Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). As the movie depicts it, the cocksure Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman, who seems to specialize in playing black icons like Jackie Robinson and James Brown) breezes into town expecting to defend Spell himself, while local attorney (and, unlike Marshall, member of the Connecticut bar) Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) makes the whole thing legit by acting as silent co-counsel. Only the judge (James Cromwell) drops a bombshell on the first day of the trial: Marshall won’t be allowed to speak in the courtroom, only to assist Friedman. The movie presents this as a shocking decision by a racist judge.
In reality (good piece on the real case here), Thurgood Marshall didn’t go to Connecticut expecting to try the case himself and never applied to, and this whole scene seems to have been cooked up as a way to explain to viewers why Marshall won’t be arguing the case in his own movie. The urge to simplify exposition about the rules of practicing law between states is understandable, but the film tries to milk it for drama and it ends up reeking of disingenuousness. The conceit gives the movie a gimmicky feel, like the ’80s sitcom trope where the cool guy tells his dweeb friend how to talk to a lady through an earpiece when he’s on a date with his crush. It doesn’t help that Gad somehow always feels like he’s in a Hitch-type situation. The film simultaneously manages to unfairly paint Friedman as kind of a doofus even as it gives him a disproportionate share of Marshall’s legacy. All of which is to gloss over the more obvious question: If you’re making a movie about the greatest civil rights lawyer of all time, whose name is the title, why choose to focus on a case where he didn’t get to do the courtroom speaking?
In fact, for a movie called “Marshall,” Marshall does seem perhaps overly concerned with the arc of its white character, who starts as a skeptic who doesn’t want to sully his reputation defending the local rapist. Friedman is also Jewish, a fact Marshall never lets us forget, whether it be in the form of him abruptly switching to Yiddish when talking to his wife or a scene where she tells him horrible news about her relatives in Krakow (it is 1940-1941, remember). These would be important scenes in a Sam Friedman biopic, which perhaps Marshall should’ve been, but in Marshall it all feels very “us too!”
If you promise us the story of the civil rights lawyer who traveled around the Jim Crow South defending black accused rapists, it’s hard for a movie focusing entirely on the Strubing case not to feel like an acute disappointment. Marshall’s trade was mind-blowingly, borderline-suicidally dangerous, and frequently involved high-speed chases through the wilds of the South, where pulling over for flashing lights often meant death and/or castration at the hands of corrupt local law enforcement. (I highly recommend Devil In The Grove for the true stories of sphincter-tightening road escapes and a proper understanding of why Thurgood Marshall was the Sheriff of Ballsville.) Marshall feels like the petting zoo version, where the horror of Klan death threats is represented by a cheesy interlude in which a couple of circus strongman-looking toughs rough up Marshall in a bar. It’s also handing us that old chestnut, where the Klan is a handful of rednecks and the hero is the good white guy. For Marshall, much more often, the Klan was the cops.
Marshall‘s tone is very much a family-friendly Disney movie, so it makes sense that they cast the guy from Frozen, whose acting tends to seem a bit much in anything non-musical. (Say it with me, “But he was so good in Book of Mormon!”, the Gad mantra, like “What is dead may never die” for the Greyjoys). That being said, the film is still about a rape, it’s just treated in the most morally simplistic way possible. One of the thorniest issues in telling civil rights stories in 2017 is that we get stories about the dangers for women reporting sexual crimes drummed into our heads daily, and rightly so. Meanwhile, many stories from the civil rights era, the Spell/Strubing case among them, come down to interrogating a lying “victim.” The way the movie tells it, Spell’s lawyers enter the case believing Spell (played by Sterling K. Brown) has an alibi, and it’s only halfway through the movie that Marshall figures out that Spell has been lying all along to cover up a consensual affair. This thanks to a tip from one of Marshall’s female friends, who tells him “You have to figure out why she would lie. Women don’t usually lie about such things.”
This is clearly an attempt to square the Strubing case with our 2017 admonitions that “we must believe women” and “we must believe reports of sexual violence,” but it’s a vast simplification. And frankly, it springs from the same kind of thinking that leads people to treat sexual matters so dishonestly in the first place (it’s easier to reduce, to euphemize, to pretend it’s black and white, than to engage with reality). In the film, Eleanor Strubing is depicted as the physically abused wife of a monstrous jerk (Jeremy Bobb plays Strubing’s husband, who news reports of the day never failed to mention had played quarterback for Princeton in 1919). She’s desperately lonely in a new town with no friends or family and finds her only outlet in the form of her handsome chauffeur. He comes to ask her for a loan one night while she’s fresh from the shower and her husband’s away on business. She seduces him, with the help of a few glasses of wine.
In reality, Spell, who had an ex-wife, a common law wife, and a 21-year-old high school student mistress at the time, and had been arrested before for threatening a previous employer when she refused him a loan, seems to have initiated the encounter. He never tried to conceal his consensual sex with Strubing to his lawyers. This obviously presented a more complicated defense, especially in 1940-1941, and Friedman won in part by brilliantly using the prosecution’s myths of black immorality and white female innocence against them.
“They had this improper relationship all through the night. Joseph sees nothing wrong in it. The formality of marriage and divorce means nothing to him,” Friedman argued. “But not to Mrs. Strubing. She has moral fiber and dignity. . . . She knows she has done wrong.”
Now that’s an interesting story. But you know you’re not dealing with nuanced storytelling when the only way a movie can depict infidelity is if it justifies it with spousal abuse (“of course she cheated, he was beating her!”). And of course, there’s also the corollary for that chestnut, that the obvious reward for defending abused women, as the movie version of Spell does, is sex with those women. This is the version of the story you might expect in 1941, not 2017.
Likewise, Thurgood Marshall, the hard-drinking, charismatic, womanizer with a bawdy sense of humor* is reduced in Marshall to a snappy dresser who drinks from whites only drinking fountains (rebel!) and makes the white man (Friedman, poor Josh Gad) carry his bags. To be fair, Marshall‘s Marshall does drink and smoke a bit and flirt with women in bars, but this kind of hinting would be far more acceptable if the omissions weren’t so plainly made in the service of moral simplicity.
Do we judge Marshall for its omissions, for its moral simplicity, for its general tendency to turn the most fraught chapters of the civil rights era into a feel-good, The Blind Side-like tale? Or do the ends justify the means, where if it means putting Thurgood Marshall into the pantheon of American heroes where he belongs, we have to forgive a little George Washington-and-the-cherry-tree-style myth-making? To me it feels cheap and simplistic, but maybe that’s only kind of tale a jury or a focus group can be trusted to handle.
* [Spoiler alert]
[From Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary]
The jury of six men and six women, all white, found Spell not guilty. “Yes, the jury turned that man loose,” Marshall said later, his voice breaking in high tones with excitement. “But he was supposed to have raped this woman four times in one night. All I got to tell you is when the story got in the newspaper, all the secretaries, all of ’em, came and said, ‘Hey, defend that man. We want to see it. Four times! Ha ha. Ha ha. Four times in one night. Yeah, bring him in here, let us see him.’ I told ’em get out of my office.”