‘Marshall’ recalls true story of civil rights case

Josh Gad (left) and Chadwick Boseman (center) star in ‘Marshall.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

In 1941, a Jewish attorney becomes a reluctant Civil Rights hero when he teams up with a NAACP lawyer to defend an innocent man, in the new film “Marshall.” 

Based on a true story, this inspiring, entertaining, surprisingly funny film features Josh Gad as Sam Friedman, a Connecticut civil law attorney and family man, who unexpectedly finds himself drawn into criminal court case with NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman). Although the title refers to the man who went on to become the first African American Supreme Court justice, director Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall”is not a biopic of Marshall, but rather a kind of snappy thriller/buddy picture, which gives about equal time to both men.

The script by Jacob and Michael Koskoff is based on a true story about a pivotal civil rights case, which the director turns into a rousing, entertaining crowd-pleaser while still making serious commentary. 

The court case takes place early in Marshall’s career, when he was the sole attorney for the struggling NAACP — more than a decade before he would argue and win Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. The NAACP sends Marshall to Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), who has been accused of attempted murder and sexual assault of his wealthy white employer Eleanor Strubling (Kate Hudson). Marshall needs a lawyer licensed in that state to have standing in court. He recruits a young Jewish insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman, for the case. 

With no experience in criminal law, Friedman finds himself in a fight for justice alongside the firebrand Marshall. Friedman and Marshall have enough of a challenge defending a black man in this racist era but to top it off, the prosecution attorney is an upper-crust WASP (Dan Stevens) who is also the son of the judge’s (James Cromwell) former law partner. Neither Jews nor blacks are welcome in their exclusive club.  

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At first, all Friedman wants to do is get out of this case. As a Jewish man in 1941 America, he has real reasons to want to keep his head down. But his perceptions change when he is confronted on the courthouse steps by a protester carrying a sign featuring ugly caricatures of a black man and a Jewish one, and expressing hatred of both. 

“The only way through a bigot’s door is to knock it down,” Marshall tells him. 

The buttoned-down Friedman at first chafes at the brash, wisecracking Marshall, who takes him out of his comfort zone in order to do the right thing. Marshall, who expected little from his inexperienced partner, is impressed by Friedman’s brilliant mind, and the two become a formidable team.  

The 1941 setting matters. It is before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, and the country is still debating joining the war in Europe. Anti-Semitic sentiments are common. “Restricted” neighborhoods and private clubs bar Jews as well as blacks. Meanwhile, Jewish families were increasingly alarmed about what was happening in Europe. That includes Friedman, who was born in Minsk — his family emigrated when he was a baby — and has family in Poland. 

Despite the film’s serious subject, Hudlin interjects a surprising amount of humor, evoking a mix of the tension of “Casablanca” with the humor of “The Thin Man.” Filled with snappy patter, fedoras and trench coats, the film is suffused with 1940s period style and elegance. 

The film alternates between scenes of the two attorneys inside the courtroom, and ones showing the impact the case has on each man’s personal life. 

In one scene, Friedman’s wife gives him the silent treatment as the family prepares to go to shul, angry that he has gotten involved in this high-profile case. At the synagogue, there is a lot of disapproval. But not all are opposed to what Friedman is doing, as one man slips him money to support the case, slyly saying, “Don’t mention it. No, really, don’t mention it.” 

This is a terrific role for Gad, who gets to show off his dramatic acting chops as well as his comedic skill. The two leads are a delight together. Boseman adds to his already impressive resume, with a film worthy of his talents. As Jackie Robinson in “42” and James Brown in “Get On Up,” Boseman’s performances were far stronger than the films themselves. 

The supporting cast is good as well, with a moving performance by Hudson as the troubled Mrs. Strubling and Stevens suitably irritating as the over-privileged prosecutor, among others. The fine photography and period details give the film a lush visual appeal as well.

“Marshall” may surprise viewers expecting a more standard biopic. However, the director taps into a compelling episode of the legendary Supreme Court justice’s life, a story that also highlights Friedman’s transformation from a man trying to escape notice to one willing, even eager, to stand up for what is right.