“Marshall,” a movie that opens this week, focuses on a young Thurgood Marshall as he defends an innocent black man accused of rape. The movie portrays the handsome and charismatic Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman), arriving in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1941 to help defend Joseph Spell, as a man full of confidence and energy. He immediately asks his white co-counsel, Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad), to carry his bags, takes command of Friedman’s car radio, and gets to work preparing his defense. Marshall, who we learn had already successfully sued to integrate the University of Maryland Law School, quickly demonstrates his abilities as an attorney, both inside and outside the courtroom. He makes his case to the press (and then admires his own photograph in the next day’s newspaper). He demonstrates his acute skills in reading people–including members of the jury. When Friedman wants to eliminate a potential woman juror, Marshall convinces him otherwise. By uncrossing her arms, removing her glasses and leaning forward, Marshall explains, she gave Friedman signs. When Friedman asks what these signs mean, Marshall has to spell it out for him: “She likes you!”
At one point, Friedman accuses Marshall of exploiting the defendant to advance his broader civil rights cause. The opposing counsel offered Spell a plea bargain, which Friedman thinks they should accept. Marshall explains that if Spell accepts the plea bargain (or is convicted), that would not only hurt the cause of racial justice, but it would end Friedman’s legal career. Friedman, a tax attorney, did not want to take the case. But as the trial went on, Friedman found himself more and more committed to the case–and to Marshall and his cause.
At the end of the trial, as he prepares to leave Bridgeport, Marshall tells Friedman that he doesn’t want to put out fires, he wants to put out fire. Although the stubborn persistence of the racial justice issues Marshal confronted in Bridgeport in 1941 shows that he never quite pulled off his own ambitious dream, what he did achieve—including successfully arguing Brown v. Board of Education and many other major Supreme Court cases, becoming the first African American to serve as U.S. Solicitor General and as a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court—make him arguably the most significant American lawyer of the twentieth century. This movie offers a powerful portrait of the man before he became a legend.
This post was written by ISCOTUS Fellow Bridget Flynn, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019.