Not a Movie Review: “Marshall”

Forgive me, this isn’t going to be quite a traditional review…

“Marshall,” a biopic about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (played here by Chadwick Boseman) is, honestly, less a biopic than an exploration of one case Marshall worked on in 1941, early in his law career. It is focused rather than sprawling, which is both a weakness and a strength, which we’ll get to later.

At one point during the proceedings, the defendant, African American Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), changes his story about what took place on the night in question and he is asked why he would have not told the truth about the events if he were innocent. Essentially, it breaks down this way (we’re going to get into SERIOUS SPOILER TERRITORY) —  Spell opted to not tell the police that he had sex with a married white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Instead, when she accused him of rape, he simply denied the charges and made up a lie about what he had been doing that night.

This is an African American man explaining to the judge (James Cromwell), prosecuting attorney Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), and everyone else in the courtroom the truth.  He explains that he has lied about this–and other things earlier in his life–because if he, Spell, told the truth, he would have been murdered for it.

We have a problem in our nation.

We have a President—and Vice President as well—who are happy to call out largely African American NFL players for daring to protest in a respectful fashion. However, this very same administration is more than willing to stay silent when, on the same weekend, white men march with torches in the South. One of these two groups is fighting for equality and the other is fighting for inequality. One is fighting to be treated equally, specifically by the police, and the other is fighting to subjugate those same people asking for equality.

No, our President hasn’t yet called for those taking a knee and telling the truth to be killed, but he has called for them to lose their livelihood for daring to, in respectful fashion, point out injustice. Our President has also said that some of those explicitly fighting for inequality, for the right to subjugate, are very fine people. *

*As an aside, this whole stance is a lie — this administration pushing for people to respect the flag—and thereby purposefully misconstruing the point of the protest—is the same one which argued against the poem of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, they have come out against the poem on the Statue of Liberty and for people losing their jobs if they don’t stand for the national anthem. And, for what it’s worth, the poem on the Statue predates the use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem.

My point is this — we are fighting the same fight Thurgood Marshall fought for decades. We may be at a different point in it today, but make no mistake, we are fighting the same fight.

During the film we see Marshall get beat up for being African American and daring to defend the accused. We see Marshall’s partner in the case, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), beaten up for being a Jew and working on this case. Make no mistake, the hatred in the eyes of the characters who beat these two men up is the same hatred in the eyes of the people in Charlottesville. We are fighting the same fight.

Wonderfully, director Reginald Hudlin and writers Jacob Koskoff & Michael Koskoff depict a trial during Marshall’s career which takes place in Connecticut (and some of the story in New York), the North, not the South.  It is a clear message that we should all remember, no matter where we live, that racism and hatred can exist.  That we all have a duty to see it not just in some distant part of the country, but our own backyards.

Marshall is, most definitely, not shown to be a perfect man here, but then again, it isn’t about being perfect. It isn’t about being superhuman, it is about standing up, recognizing a problem, and trying to do something about it – trying to make the world a better place.

Certainly, the film itself is not perfect.  It has some pacing problems and some of the courtroom moments are overblown.  The reveal about what actually took place on the night in question is treated as though the affair would be a surprise when, in fact, most of the audience will have the answer already.  Beyond that, the movie offers a look at Marshall at one moment in his life, but not all of it feels expandable to a larger view of him as a person, and this sense is made worse due to the fact a significant portion of the endeavor isn’t about him but the case.

Even so, it is still a powerful film. It is a film dramatizing an historical moment but which does what the best such films do – and that’s offer a look at our world today.

That world which we see reflected in the mirror is beset by troubles.  It is a place where the President of the United States is more comfortable placating white supremacists than he is with allowing an African American man to have a differing opinion.  However, this is not a position from which we are unable to recover.  Things can get better, they can improve, but that starts with us being willing to stand up and support those fighting for justice and to tell those promoting hate that they have no place here.

photo credit: Open Road Films


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