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Laramie Movie Scope: Marshall

Lawyer buddy courtroom drama

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 3, 2018 – This film centers on legendary civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall as he defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in Connecticut in 1940. This is an entertaining historical courtroom drama, with a considerable amount of humor built around the sometimes adversarial relationship between Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther” and “Get on Up”) and his co-counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad of “Murder on the Orient Express”).

Marshall, in 1940, is the lone attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) soon to become head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. By that time, he had already argued a case before the United States Supreme Court. Sam Friedman, on the other hand, had no experience with criminal cases. His specialty was civil cases involving insurance claims.

When Friedman's brother, Irwin (John Magaro of “The Big Short”) signs Sam for the case of defending Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of the “This Is Us” TV series) Sam is furious. He wants no part of the case. It is bad for business. But Thurgood makes sure that Sam is connected publicly to the case. There is offer by another experienced criminal attorney to take the case, but Thurgood turns him down and makes it hard for Sam to back out.

When Sam asks Thurgood why he wants him as co-counsel, Thurgood says that because of his inexperience, Sam will do as he is told. Thurgood, in this film is a cocky, take charge kind of guy. Sam agrees to take the case. Sam plans to take second chair, but the judge (played by James Cromwell of “The Sum of All Fears”) rules that Thurgood will not be allowed to speak in court, so Sam has to do all the talking.

The rape trial has a number of twists and complications. The defense suffers one setback after another, being blind-sided by a couple of witnesses. Both Thurgood and Sam are assaulted by racists in the town. The defendant is tempted to settle for reduced time in prison when plea deals are offered by the prosecution.

I saw this film last night at the University of Wyoming during a well-attended presentation. There was a panel discussion after the film which offered historical, legal and other perspectives on the film. I found the discussion very enlightening and I appreciate the different perspectives offered. A discussion follows:

In the middle of the night after watching this, I had an epiphany about why women and men had such different views of this film last night, particularly this year, when the “Me Too” and “Time's Up” movements are still roiling.

During the panel discussion following the film there was criticism of the film in terms of its historical inaccuracies, but some women in the audience seemed to find it particularly annoying that not only was there not a strong female character in the film, but that the most prominent female character in the film, Eleanor Strubing (played by Kate Hudson of “Deepwater Horizon”) is an almost one-dimensional villain. It was she who lied on the stand about being raped by the defendant.

This is perhaps most galling because almost every woman who ever accuses a man of rape in court is accused by the defense of lying. Because our justice system is adversarial, women who accuse men of rape in court end up on trial themselves. These women are often portrayed as vain, lying, promiscuous teasers who won't admit to having consensual sex.

Complicating the issue is the historical fact that many black men and boys were murdered by mobs, or executed for encounters with white women during the period of American history that this film was set, and for years afterward. The infamous case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy lynched in 1955 by a mob after allegedly flirting with a white woman was mentioned in the discussion last night. Decades later, the woman, Carolyn Bryant, admitted she lied about the incident.

As a newspaper reporter, I once covered part of a similar rape trial in Laramie. It was a racially-charged trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. It was a date rape case. After the defendant was found not guilty, I wrote the story and moved on. It wasn't my first time covering a rape trial. A less experienced fellow reporter was so enraged with the story, and the outcome of the trial, she sought out the accuser, determined to present her side of the case. Further, she argued that she, and she alone would cover such trials from that date forward. Obviously, feelings run high in such cases.

At the panel discussion of the movie, one woman in the audience tried to put into words how she felt about the depiction of the rape case in the film. She was upset by the way the Eleanor Strubing character was put on trial. She wanted to know if there was a movie about rape where the accuser is better portrayed. The movie that came to my mind that seems to fit the bill is “The Accused” (1988) starring Jodie Foster. It is a dramatization of a successful prosecution by a woman against men, based on an actual rape case.

During the panel discussion some women talked about how few women directors are working in Hollywood. One woman said she was disappointed in the way women are portrayed in movies in general. “Marshall” is directed by Reginald Hudlin, who is a black man. Perhaps if a white woman had directed the same film, the character of Eleanor Strubing might have been handled differently.

It is not my habit to evaluate movies based on politics, and I won't do that here. I did, however, appreciate the observation that the construction of this movie is a lot like a cop buddy movie. I also appreciate the observation by lawyers during the panel discussion that if your goal is a representative depiction of Thurgood Marshall as an important figure in American history, this is not the trial to base it on.

This is a very entertaining courtroom drama, at least from the perspective of this white male. It features two fine performances by Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad. While many characters in the film are one-dimensional, the story itself is compelling and the two main characters work well together. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2018 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]