Director Reginald Hudlin describes his new film, Marshall, as “an origin story of a real life super hero.” Were the august Supreme Court Justice alive today, he might object to that characterization, but the young, African-American attorney in the movie would not. Brilliant, brash, and already a legendary figure in the struggle for civil rights in 1941, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) arrives in Connecticut as counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He is there to interview Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black man accused of raping his white employer, socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).
Marshall’s director admits to being immediately engaged upon first reading Michael Koskoff’s debut screenplay. “This is not a straightforward biopic, and I appreciate that because I believe in genre,” he says, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “This is a legal thriller. It’s a Western. It is also a buddy movie.” The savvy, former executive of Black Entertainment Television, and producer on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), admits, with wry humor, that he does not want to make “cod liver movies,” or biopics that are “good for you, but maybe not good stories.” Marshall would no doubt agree with that principle. Justice William J. Brennan, Marshall’s closest colleague on the court, once spoke of his admiration for the attorney’s commanding voice and his narrative skills; storytelling, he said, was “his way of preserving the past while purging it of its bleakest moments.”
Marshall is biographical, and it is a courtroom drama. The film depicts an actual case, State of Connecticut v. Spell, in which the 33-year-old civil rights lawyer served as co-counsel, along with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad). In the opening scenes, the audience learns that Marshall (1908-1993), who won 29 of the 31 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and who was the first black man to be appointed to the high court, once traveled tens of thousands of miles across the United States each year for the NAACP. He was, as Thurgood tells Sam in the film, the organization’s only on-staff attorney the year of the Spell trial.
In his work for the civil rights organization, Marshall pursued cases with black defendants, generally those in which civil rights were at issue, such as Murray v. Pearson (1935), a landmark case brought against the University of Maryland that Thurgood brags about in the film. Like his mentor, the great civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950), Marshall chose cases that tested “separate but equal” state statutes. Spell, a criminal case, challenged an insidious and longstanding justification for the treatment of black men in the Jim Crow south, that of the sexual threat they posed to white women.
In the movie, when Thurgood arrives in Bridgeport, Sam is there to meet him; he believes his only role will be to usher the black attorney through the unfamiliar practices of the local court. “This is a story that you don’t know, and one where you don’t know the outcome,” Hudlin says. Koskoff, a Connecticut lawyer, learned about the Spell case through his friend Jack Zeldes; Zeldes, also an attorney, researched Elia Kazan’s Boomerang (1947), based on an actual murder trial in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Our film is set in the North, so there is no tobacco-chewing sheriff,” Hudlin says. “The veneer of politeness that is Northern racism also makes the movie more relevant.”
In an opening sequence, Thurgood interrogates Spell and, believing that he did not rape Mrs. Strubing, decides to defend him. Sam files the necessary papers and he and Thurgood appear together in court. That is when the judge makes a shocking announcement about the future conduct of the case, and the “buddy movie” begins.
Hudlin laughs when asked about directing Chadwick Boseman, who was riveting in the excellent Jackie Robinson biopic 42 (2013), and as James Brown in Get on Up (2014). “He was nervous about playing the role because he doesn’t look like Thurgood,” the director says. “Then we got a letter from John Thurgood, Marshall’s son, that said that if we didn’t have the best person for the job just because they were dark-skinned instead of light skinned, his father would be furious.” Josh Gad gives a credible performance as the business attorney who, with Thurgood’s tutelage, becomes a criminal lawyer, but the standout in Marshall is Sterling K. Brown (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) as Spell. Kate Hudson is quite believable as Mrs. Strubing, a woman with hidden depths.
For Hudlin, Marshall represents a dream project. “I always thought Thurgood was one of the most under-rated figures in American history,” he says, “so I am just riding out my passion.” The director recalls that he read several books to prepare for the film, including Larry S. Gibson’s Young Thurgood (2012), and Wil Haygood’s Showdown (2015). Among the recently published biographies of Marshall, only Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove (2013) contains a brief account of the Spell case. Asked what era of Marshall’s life he might tackle next, if he were given the opportunity to make another film, Hudlin does not hesitate. “I think about him and LBJ together,” he says of the president who appointed Marshall to the high court. “Those two, big amazing personalities! There is plenty to be told, but right now, we want to see how this one goes.”
Marshall makes its New York City debut on October 13, and there is already buzz about an Oscar nomination for Boseman.