The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:


 Order in the Court

Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman
Open Road Films
 118 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Reginald Hudlin
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad 

If you wanted to illustrate the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first black United States Supreme Court Justice, through the lens of one single case in his career, there are many to choose from that would make an excellent, and, more importantly, fairly representational example. For starters, there’s perhaps the most famous case of all time, Brown v. Board of Education, which earlier formed the basis for Separate But Equal, a creditable TV miniseries featuring Sidney Poitier as Marshall. Then there’s one of the first major cases he argued, Murray v. Pearson, which led to the desegregation of the University of Maryland law school, a school Marshall himself was barred from attending. Or there’s the case of the Groveland Four, young black men in Florida railroaded on charges of raping a white women.


Instead of any of those cases, however, the producers of the recent biodrama Marshall decided to base their film on a Connecticut rape case in which Marshall only played a secondary role, assisting a white attorney. Thanks to another dynamic performance by Chadwick Boseman in the title role, Marshall winds up being an entertaining but far too conventional legal drama artificially boosted by some questionable tampering with the actual facts.


In 1941, when the film takes place, Marshall worked as an attorney for the NAACP, going around the country, appearing in cases in which innocent blacks were on trial for serious crimes simply because of their race. Not surprisingly, many of these “trials” were essentially kangaroo show courts in front of hostile, all-white juries in the South. The case of Joseph Spell was rather unusual, since it took place in New England. But, as Marshall soon found out, racial prejudice was just as prevalent there.


The case involves a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown), accused of kidnapping and raping the wife (Kate Hudson) of his employer. When Marshall arrives in Bridgeport, he finds that Spell already has an attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a relatively inexperienced trial lawyer better known for winning cases for insurance companies on technicalities. Friedman agrees to Marshall’s help, but the judge (James Cromwell), refuses to allow Marshall, a non-member of the Connecticut Bar, to participate in the actual trial, although he is allowed to sit at the defense table.


Despite the judge’s ruling and the icy attitude displayed by the racist prosecutor (Dan Stevens), Marshall is able to coach Friedman into presenting a good case at trial, where the two hope to poke holes in the credibility of the State’s case and the alleged victim. But the increased notoriety that Friedman and Marshall gain results in actual physical violence against the two of them.


Stripped of its historical and racial context, Marshall is at heart yet another underdog legal drama pitting a likeable but seemingly outgunned defense attorney (or attorneys in this case) against a system that’s out to convict the client, seemingly at any cost. The case is somewhat more salacious, but the inherent drama isn’t all that different from what Raymond Burr went through on Perry Mason a half century ago. Screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff don’t have to go far to get the outline of their case. In fact, the screenplay omits a number of details in the actual case (such as an alleged ransom note Spell wrote that was never found) to leave the outcome more in doubt. Michael Koskoff (a Bridgeport attorney and the father of Jacob) doubtless incorporated a good bit of local detail to make the trial slick and exciting.


But other aspects of the case are highly fictionalized, and troublingly so. The real Sam Friedman was an experienced trial attorney, and much of the defense’s success in the actual case resulted from his considerable courtroom skills, not Thurgood Marshall’s coaching. And, while there was indeed a racially charged atmosphere surrounding the case (which clearly resembles the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird), the assaults against Friedman and Marshall did not occur. In addition, the screenwriters’ attempt to equate the racism prevalent at the trial with Hitler’s concurrent Final Solution are forced and unnecessary.


Even if Marshall plays fast and loose with the facts at times, there is no denying the casual racism and the acceptance of racism in the legal system at the time. There was an at-times thin line separating the physical violence occasionally perpetrated and the slurs and bias shown on a daily basis by establishment figures such as the judge and prosecutor here. Even though the facts might have been in the defense’s favor, Friedman and Marshall faced an uphill battle in a system in which an accusation of rape by a white woman against a black man would almost invariably be believed.


It is against that systemic prejudice that Thurgood Marshall rails, on those few occasions when the facts of the actual case allow him to do so. Once again, as with his earlier portrayals of Jackie Robinson and James Brown, Chadwick Boseman captures the qualities that made his subjects so memorable. Those who only remember Marshall from photos of the older, somewhat sickly-looking man during his Supreme Court days will get a fresh appreciation of the dynamic force that the younger Marshall was in the courtroom, winning dozens of major civil rights cases during his years in practice. Thurgood Marshall personally advanced the progress of civil rights and desegregation in the federal court system by about a decade.


Thurgood Marshall is definitely worthy of a definitive screen biography, either one that captures the highlights of his remarkable career or a more focused one that affords greater insight to the man at a particular point in time. Chadwick Boseman manages to capture the drive and charisma of the man (as evidenced in the clip below), but the film can never quite put him in the proper context. While Marshall is certainly slick, crowd- pleasing entertainment, it also to a certain extent diminishes the great jurist to the status of the hero of a John Grisham potboiler. Thurgood Marshall and the filmgoing audiences deserve something a bit better.

In this scene, Chadwick Boseman discusses equal protection of the law with a group of reporters.

Read other reviews of Marshall:


Marshall (2017) on IMDb