Overview: In this biopic, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall takes on a complicated case in Connecticut: Strubing vs. Spell. Open Road Films; 2017; PG-13; 118 minutes.
SVU: Connecticut: Marshall is a biopic but not the kind of biopic that the trailer might lead you to believe it is. Instead of covering the entire life of Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), or even the most widely-known aspects of his career, it focuses on a portion of Thurgood Marshall’s time as an NAACP lawyer sent to Connecticut to defend black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) in 1940. The headlines surrounding socialite Eleanor Strubing’s (Kate Hudson) accusation that Spell raped, kidnapped, and attempted to murder her signal to Marshall that Spell is in danger, and he goes to Connecticut to take his case. As Marshall is an out-of-state defense lawyer, insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is assigned as his local counsel, and the two develop a unique bond while searching for the truth in Strubing vs. Spell.
Although his character is flawed, it’s impossible to not like Boseman as Marshall, a testament to an impeccable performance and brilliant casting. Gad is an excellent dramatic actor as well, his versatility a pleasant surprise. However, it’s Brown’s performance that knocks it out of the park. He transforms into Joseph Spell, and his character’s fear, hopelessness, and panic is genuinely palpable. Brown’s scenes with Boseman are electric; the two actors play off each other so powerfully that it’s possible to suspend disbelief, despite the actors’ fame—casting choices that could potentially hinder a biopic payoff here. The courtroom portions of Marshall work the best, thanks to their realism, but the film falters outside the courtroom; scenes adding dimension to the characters’ lives felt far too rushed. Marshall’s personal struggles with his wife almost felt like an afterthought, the pointed indications of Marshall’s friendships with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were a bit much, and a couple of syrupy monologues seemed to borrow from Brown’s hit network show, This Is Us. Despite a few bumps, the actors power through these somewhat awkward transitional scenes and keep the viewers invested in the story.
An Ugly Truth: Systemic oppression and hate crimes against black people are woven into the bloodied fabric of this country. But to turn a blind eye to more insidious bigotry, such as the racism and anti-Semitism that permeates our day-to-day lives and power structures, is to let the violence of intolerance fester even further in our country. That’s why choosing to center the film on Thurgood Marshall’s 1940 case, Strubing vs. Spell, is so powerful. The Connecticut case allows viewers to see that bigotry wasn’t localized to one area of the United States of America. In the 1940s, the North’s racism and anti-Semitism was as brutal and life-threatening as it was in the South. The film was co-written by civil rights lawyer Michael Koskoff and his screenwriter son, Jacob Koskoff, both of whom are Connecticut natives. Exploring this bombshell case allowed the pair to shine a light on the North’s own shameful history, too. Both Gad and Boseman do a phenomenal job as men fighting a system that’s built to be against them; conversely, Dan Stevens’s dripping good-old-boy condescension and Hudson’s doe-eyed complicity highlight exactly the kind of Goliath Thurgood Marshall and Sam Friedman were up against.
Overall: Mesmerizing performances alone make Marshall a standout film, and, though its court case is nearly 80 years old, the parallels to current racial injustices make this film a sobering, necessary watch.