Joseph Spell is a black chauffer accused of raping and trying to murder a white woman who just happens to be his wealthy employer. He maintains he’s innocent, but in 1940s Connecticut – which is still tainted by racism – no one believes him.
Enter Thurgood Marshall, a young attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He travels the country defending people who were falsely accused of a crime because of their race, and he believes he has a good case with Spell.
But there’s a problem. The segregationist-friendly judge won’t allow Marshall to speak in court, which means that a reluctant Jewish attorney named Sam Friedman — who initially has no interest in the high-profile case — must defend Spell before the jury.
Together, this unlikely duo must work together in a Moses-and-Aaron type of arrangement that seems destined to fail. Or perhaps it just might work.
The biopic Marshall (PG-13) opens in theaters this weekend, following the true story and early career of Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), who appeared in front of the U.S. Supreme Court some 30 times as an attorney prior to being nominated by President Lyndon Johnson as the court’s first African-American justice.
The film spotlights a significant case in Marshall’s early life known as The State of Connecticut v Joseph Spell (1941).
It stars Chadwick Boseman (42, Captain America: Civil War) as Marshall; Josh Gad (Frozen, Beauty and the Beast) as Friedman; Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) as Spell; and Kate Hudson (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days) as Eleanor Strubing, the woman who allegedly was raped.
Marshall is an entertaining and inspiring historical drama that, nonetheless, has some disappointing and unnecessary content problems. Let’s examine the details.
Moderate. We see the attempted murder recreated in the mind of Spell’s accuser. (A body is tossed into a river. The scene remains bloodless.) Friedman is beaten on the street at night by some thugs, and Marshall gets in a fistfight at a bar.
Moderate. The movie, of course, revolves around an alleged rape, and we see it recreated twice. The first time, she is dressed and then gagged with a cloth before the scene changes. Later, we see it recreated again, with kissing and more flesh but no nudity. Marshall is married in the film; we see his wife in a bra as they discuss her pregnancy.
Moderate. Marshall has about 29 coarse words – an average amount for a PG-13 film – but some of them are big ones: h-ll (6), GD (5), N-word (4), a—(4), F-word (3), ba—-d (2), s—t (2), d—n (1) SOB (1). Even worse: They’re paired with some of the film’s more inspiring (and even spiritual) lines. (See below.)
Other Positive Elements
Marshall’s bold stance against racism and for righteousness is admirable. So is his work ethic. He travels from city to city to defend the innocent and is well-known among the black community and the legal profession for his sharp mind. But his workload has a price: He’s rarely home. Several times, we see him regret his absence from his wife.
One of the film’s highlights takes place as Marshall and Friedman discuss their strategy. Using the Bible for inspiration, Marshall says: “The Lord commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help. ‘He shall speak for you to the people’” The duo then finishes the thought together: “You shall be his mouth and you shall be as God.” The point: Friedman will speak for Marshall. Yet this moment is spoiled with Marshall’s profanity immediately before it (GD) and Friedman’s profanity right after it (f-word). Marshall says “GD” several times in the film – a fact that will repel some Christian moviegoers.
Other Negative Elements
Lots of people smoked cigarettes during the 1940s. Lots of people smoke during Marshall, too. Marshall himself also tells the true story of how he lost a testicle in an accident.
Marshall includes lessons about determination, resolve, standing for righteousness, never giving up and defending the innocent. It also teaches us that people can – and do – change for the better. At first, Friedman wanted nothing to do with the case. He especially didn’t want the paper tying his name to a black man accused of raping a white woman. But by movie’s end, he is Spell’s chief advocate.
Segregation was an ugly moment in America history, but there were heroes who put their careers and lives on the line to stand up for what was right. The Bible commands us to “rescue the weak and the needy” (Psalm 82:4) and to “open your mouth for the mute” (Psalm 31:8). That is what Thurgood Marshall did on the issue of race, even if – it should be noted – he landed on the wrong side of abortion later in life. (He voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade.)
The language and the recreated rape scenes make this one not family-friendly for little ones.
What I Liked
Marshall and Friedman have great chemistry, and it’s fun to watch. Marshall’s commitment to his wife is also exemplary.
What I Didn’t Like
The language – and specifically, hearing God’s name often abused.
Thumbs Up … Or Down?
Thumbs up, with caveats about content.
- How would you have reacted if you were called names, as were Marshall and Friedman?
- Why was Friedman initially reluctant to help Marshall?
- What causes racism? What is the cure for racism?
- Marshall says, “The Constitution was not written for us.” Do you agree with that?
- We see Marshall drink from a whites-only fountain. Would you have done that if you were in his position?
Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.
— Michael Foust
Marshall is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language.
I blog about fatherhood and have an awesome family. I also really like popcorn.