Marshall, a legal thriller with a civil-rights superhero as its protagonist, features an innocence case and a nail-biting investigation.
By Susanna Speier
I scanned the movie listings last weekend with Professor Marsden and the Wonder Women in mind. As a lifelong Wonder Woman fan, I was eager to learn the backstory of the character’s creator. And I wanted to follow up a post I wrote for the Denver Private Investigator Blog post connecting the Wonder Woman origin story to the invention of an early version of the lie detector test.
Warner Brothers’ summer blockbuster featured Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, a swoon-worthy US military spy who hijacks a German military jet, crash lands on the Amazon island of Themiscyra, and becomes Diana’s love interest. How cool is that?
But at the last minute, my eyes stopped scanning at Marshall. The preview looked fantastic. Although both movies take place during roughly the same period, Marshall somehow felt more substantial and urgent than the story of a philandering college professor who, in his spare time, wrote controversial comic books.
In the end, Marshall was the real superhero movie. The film’s real-life protagonist, Thurgood Marshall, was certainly a superhero in his own right. But the source of his power wasn’t some tricked up vehicle or magic weapon; it was the U.S. Constitution.
Like other great superhero portrayers, Chadwick Boseman balances strength and subtlety, thoughtfulness and whimsy, idealism and skeptical trepidation. On a deeper level, he carries Marshall’s ancestral history of racial subjugation (tracing back to an enslaved grandfather) with the dignity, grace, and intellect that a lesser actor could have easily over- or underplayed. I found his performance to be pitch perfect. (Clarkisha Kent at The Root did not entirely agree.)
Spoiler alert: Marshall went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967 and served until his retirement in 1991. That detail, which you probably already knew, isn’t actually shared until the epilogue. You probably also know all about Brown v. Board of Education, the case that made Marshall a legend. But the 1941 case the film follows, State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, was an early-career case for the young attorney, concerning a racially-charged false accusation of rape.
At the time the story takes place, Marshall is a 32-year-old attorney (and director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund) fighting for civil rights in courtrooms across America. He challenges university segregation policies and wins a major case (Chambers v. Florida), in which the Supreme Court finds that the defendants’ confessions, brought about by coercion, should be voided.
For State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, Marshall joins forces with Connecticut attorney Samuel Friedman (played brilliantly by Book of Mormon star, Josh Gad). Marshall and Friedman are convinced that their client is innocent, and that the accuser has lied about a consensual encounter to cover her shame at having an interracial sexual relationship. They set about proving it by uncovering physical evidence and inconsistencies in the accuser’s testimony. The jury finds the defendant not guilty.
Some of my favorite scenes are investigation-nerd scenes: detailed breakdowns of evidence gathering, crime-scene analysis, and body-language reads. In one scene, the attorneys inspect the location where Eleanor Strubling says Joseph Spell pushed her off a bridge and hurled rocks at her on the night of the alleged assault. During the trial, Friedman opens an envelope of evidence he and Marshall collected at the bridge and shows the jury that the “rocks” are actually just pebbles—thus undermining the accuser’s story. A savvy PI will appreciate these investigative details.
Father/son screenwriting team Michael (also a Connecticut personal-injury and civil-rights attorney) and Jacob Koskoff could have easily done a standard biopic. But their choice to tell this story as a social-justice thriller makes it more relevant to the private investigation industry than it would have been otherwise. If you’re a private investigator working in the legal industry, this movie may just compel you to fight even harder for your clients.
About the Author:
In addition to contributing to PursuitMag, Susanna Speier is the social media strategist and blogger for Ross Investigators of Denver, Colorado. The Denver Private Investigator Blog was recently ranked 4th in the country by PI Now for private investigator blogs. She also consults, gives social media training seminars to private investigators around the country, and is a freelancer for hire, who can be reached through Linkedin.
‘Marshall’ Portrays Justice’s Early Work and a Golden Era of Black-Jewish Relations, by Naomi Pfefferman (Jewish Journal)
Saving the Race, by Daniel J. Sharfstein (Legal Affairs)
What to Know About the Real Case That Inspired the Movie Marshall, by Lily Rothman (Time.com)
Koskoff.com in the news: http://www.koskoff.com/In-the-News/Connecticut-Lawyer-Writes-of-an-Old-Wrong.shtml
7 Things to Know About Thurgood Marshall Ahead of “Marshall” Biopic, by Danielle Kwateng-Clark (Essence)
History Vs. Hollywood: “Reel Faces” (Photos of the actors & the people they portray)