Today, Thurgood Marshall is often remembered as the attorney who argued Brown v. Board of Education — a landmark civil rights case that eventually led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in school and other public facilities — and the man who became the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967. But in the film Marshall, the legendary legal figure isn’t able to shine quite as brightly as audiences would have hoped, mainly due to the fact that the movie depicts only one case — and Marshall isn’t permitted to speak for the majority of it.
It may not be Marshall’s most well-known court case, but it’s still an important one. Prior to the high points of the Civil Rights Movement, Marshall worked as a traveling NAACP lawyer, representing clients all across the country who had been accused of crimes due to the color of their skin. In this particular 1941 case, a white Connecticut woman named Eleanor Strubing accused Joseph Spell, her black chauffeur, of rape. She claimed that after the assault, Spell bound and bagged her before throwing her into a reservoir. Spell did confess to the crime initially — after 16 hours of police questioning — but later denied the charges and called the encounter consensual.
Thurgood Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) travels to defend Spell, but the Bridgeport judge allows him to act only as table counsel and doesn’t allow him to speak in Spell’s defense. Marshall teams up with a local insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad), who ends up arguing the entire case. Marshall is allowed only one speech to reporters. For a man so remembered for his eloquence in the court room, critics can’t help but be a bit disappointed that Marshall isn’t showcased more in the film bearing his name.
Another disappointing factor to some critics is the fact that the plot centers around the idea that the audience should not believe Eleanor Strubing, the alleged rape victim. Marshall believes Spell’s account, and when Friedman questions Strubing on the stand, he asks whether she was lonely in her marriage or was drunk at the time of the encounter. Although 1.5 million people are arrested annually for drunk driving, through a modern lens, this line of questioning falls under the category of victim-blaming — a concept that likely won’t sit well with many modern audiences.
Still, there are some inspiring moments within the film. Critics say the film shows the connection between the Jewish and African American communities during this time period, and Gad and Boseman’s chemistry is reportedly dynamic.
Spell was found not guilty, but the film serves as a reminder that in today’s world, Americans are still accused (and convicted) of crimes due to their race. That said, many critics feel that the point might have been made just as well if the film focused on a broader scope of Marshall’s life, rather than on a case that is but a “footnote” in his illustrious legal career.