“Marshall” has all the makings of a fantastic biopic: a venerable subject matter, impressive actors, and an Oscar-nominated director in Reginald Hudlin (“Django Unchained”). While this film is undoubtedly an Oscar-contender, it turns out that it’s not so much a biopic after all. Despite former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s remarkable record winning 29 of 32 cases before the Supreme Court as a private attorney, he doesn’t even argue the central case in this film.
Why would Hudlin appear turn away from the story of civil rights leader Marshall in favor of white, Jewish attorney Sam Friedman? It seems this isn’t the well-known story of Marshall-the-attorney, but one that explores a lesser-known side of him. Here, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) shines as a brilliant recruiter and motivator.
In “Marshall“, Thurgood travels to Connecticut on behalf of the NAACP to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K Brown) on a rape charge. As he’s not a licensed attorney in the state, Marshall needs one to appear in court on his behalf, presenting a motion allowing him to argue there. Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) reluctantly agrees, insisting that he’s through with the case afterwards. The judge won’t allow Friedman to step down and forbids Marshall from speaking, effectively muzzling him in favor of an attorney who has never even tried a criminal case.
The surprise ruling means Marshall must motivate Friedman to defend their client, while teaching him the intricacies of criminal law. Friedman becomes part of a movement he never intended to champion. In fact, the film’s post script says he spent the rest of his life working as a civil rights advocate following this experience.
The real-life Friedman undoubtedly saw the parallels between what he faced as a Jewish attorney and the plight of his African-American client, a point that’s emphasized through repeated scenes in which both suffer from racism and stereotypes. The director ensures this connection is clear, with Marshall telling Friedman he’s “one of us”.
For more about “Marshall”, including some interesting stylistic choices, take a look below:
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