Reviewed by Alicia Glass
Review Rating: 8 out of 10
A story about the first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, from his time as a young attorney fighting cases for the NAACP.
Okay, so we all know that the situation in America circa 1941 for black folks really was unpleasant. Segregation and racist violence still runs rampant in many states, and the idea of fighting for any kind of human rights was considered, at best, uppity and frowned upon. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is fighting tooth and nail to make sure their black brethren get all the rights every single American citizen is supposed to be privy to, but it’s a constant uphill battle.
Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is a young lawyer for the NAACP, sent to conservative Connecticut to defend a black chauffer accused of raping his employers wife. Marshall is well educated and mildly cocky, but always unwilling to let racial slurs slide, and refuses to bow his head or act anything other than what he is – a lawyer sent to defend his client. Marshall believes in the truth, not only for its own sake but also as, more often than not, the only real thing that can defend his clients and keep them from being discriminated against. Things need to change and Marshall can be a herald of those changes, regardless of the mountainous obstacles.
And the obstacles are mountainous indeed. First the Judge, Foster (James Cromwell), rules that Marshall isn’t a Connecticut lawyer and therefore cannot represent the accused in this state, instead turning to the nervous little Jewish insurance claims lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who’s never tried a capitol case in his entire career and insisting he act as counsel for what could be the trial of the decade, at least as far as Connecticut is concerned. Turns out the good folk of Connecticut aren’t exactly pleased with Jews right now either, despite the peaceful Synagogue attendance and apparently placid nature of the Jewish community. Friedman himself doesn’t want to take the case, nor does his family, hell even the Jewish community of lawyers and businessmen are warning Sam to drop this case like some bad pork. But Marshall is insistent, perseverant, and all but demands the same justice for Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) as any other red-blooded American citizen deserves.
Most notorious legal cases come with some kind of standard lie from the client and this one is no different, save for one pretty major exception – having the real truth of what happened come out could easily destroy the lives of everyone involved. Joseph Spell stands accused of waiting until the employer husband had left, raping the wife Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), and then attempting to kill her by tossing her off a bridge. The series of fortunate circumstances that left Eleanor alive and able to testify against Spell in court are nothing short of miraculous, and as Marshall figures out fairly quickly, some total bullshit. Spell has a secret that, in Connecticut 1941, could get him and perhaps everyone involved in his case, executed ‘Strange Fruit’ style.
Pressure is mounting, both inside and outside the courtroom, to obtain a verdict that will make everyone happy and shut up the nay-sayers, because the longer and louder this case goes on, the more fuel these uppity negroes have to use to demand their God-given rights from the US of A’s legal system. The NAACP thinks Thurgood Marshall needs their help, Marshall’s own personal life is in tatters with his wifes’ miscarriage tragedy, Friedman never wanted the case to begin with, and of course the cops and the media are scrutinizing his actions with a fine-tooth comb. His client Spell has finally come clean with the truth, but even exposing that truth in court won’t guarantee a ‘not guilty’ verdict, unless Friedman and Marshall can seriously sell it, to the jury, the judge, and most especially, the media.
The outcome of the trial is mildly predictable, but since technically Marshall was never the actual presiding lawyer for Spell, the judge can’t do a damned thing if the NAACP wants to ship Marshall somewhere else before the very end. Despite the movie apparently revolving around this particular trial and Marshall’s own genius and dogged determination, the film also clearly shows he couldn’t do any of this alone. The NAACP at this early stage might be only concerned with protecting the rights of the black man, but Thurgood Marshall earns the respect of damn near everyone else he comes into contact with, including some of those racist bleeps in Connecticut. The story of this first trial is just a framework, and a damn good one too.
The film’s cast, every single last one of ‘em, deliver stellar performances all around, clearly digging deep to bring their individual characters to life. The cheerfully determined underlying message, to never give up and never give in, comes across in every scene, and makes the audience proud to have been a part of something so relevant today, even briefly.