Bill Moyers is a great journalist. So proud to have this article about my film on his site!
BY TITI YU
Before he was a Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall was a civil rights lawyer battling the same forces that confront our justice system today.
After garnering eight NAACP Image Award nominations and a Grammy nomination for best song, Marshall, an independent film you may have missed earlier this year, is back in theaters this week. It tells the story of a little-known 1941 court case involving a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (played by Sterling K. Brown), who is accused of raping his white wealthy employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The NAACP assigns a young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) to take the case.
Boseman plays Marshall as a brash and cocky young attorney entertainingly, but what makes this film worth seeing is the case. It may not have the historical weight of Brown v. Board of Education, but it is relevant in the modern age of Black Lives Matter and Kalief Browder, who spent three years in Rikers Island Prison despite never being convicted of a crime.
From the beginning, Spell faced an impossible situation in the criminal justice system — one faced by countless others including the Scottsboro boys, Emmett Till and the Central Park Five. Spell had an inexperienced defense lawyer, a bigoted prosecutor, a judge with questionable objectivity and lived in a society deeply prejudiced about white women associating with black men. Throughout the trial, he was pressured to take a plea deal despite his innocence. Were it not for Marshall’s insistence on going to trial, the case would have ended in obscurity and Spell would have been another nameless victim in prison.
What Spell faced in 1941 still rings true today. More than 90 percent of all criminal cases never go to trial. Black and Latino defendants are more likely to be offered plea bargains that include incarceration, contributing to the stunning racial imbalance in the penal system. A new study published this year by Carlos Berdejo of Loyola Law School found that prosecutors overwhelmingly gave white defendants better deals in misdemeanor charges. Berdejo analyzed over 30,000 thousand cases in Wisconsin over seven years, and found that whites were 74 percent more likely than blacks and Latinos to get a deal that dropped or reduced their charges. Countless African-American defendants still face similar experiences upon enter the justice system. Luckily, Spell had Thurgood Marshall in his corner.
We talked with the film’s director, Reginald Hudlin. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Titi Yu: Why did you decide to focus on The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell?
Reginald Hudlin: Because we hadn’t seen it. For it to work as a movie, it had to be a case where we don’t know the outcome. Hopefully you learned about Brown v. Board of Education in the fifth grade or sometime. So I was excited to tell a story that was sort of an original story. I also really loved the Connecticut setting, because Northern racism too often gets a pass, and Joseph Spell himself, because he’s no angel as they say. It made the story very relevant and relatable to current cases — you know, whenever they shoot some innocent kid. Many times, people are on trial for what’s said about them in the media. But what about the case? Did they do what you’re accusing them of? I thought, for all those reasons, it was the right story.
TY: What was it about this case that showed that Thurgood Marshall would become the kind of lawyer and litigator we know him as now?
RH: Well, the case works on a lot of different levels. First of all, it’s a very messy case. It’s rape and attempted murder. And so inherently we feel protective of the woman. And that’s the reason I wanted Kate Hudson. Because who doesn’t love Kate Hudson? This woman was attacked, and it’s horrible — there’s that natural gut instinct. Then there is the fact that Thurgood Marshall was gagged. [The judge allowed Marshall to assist Spell’s attorney in arguing the case but he was not allowed to speak in the courtroom.] Metaphorically, that speaks to the whole thing. This guy, he was fighting for freedom, and they literally took his voice away. This is the equivalent of telling Muhammad Ali, “We are going to put you in the ring and tie your hands behind your back and see if you can win the fight.” So, under the most impossible circumstances, we see Thurgood run a trial without speaking. We see his detective skills and his ability to read people, whether it’s the audience or whether it’s whoever was testifying.
TY: There are a lot of similarities between this case and what many African-Americans still face in the justice system. In the scene where Joseph Spell was considering whether or not he was going to take a plea, it reminded me so much of the Kalief Browder case, where there was enormous pressure to take a plea even when he was innocent of the crime.
RH: Absolutely. There are so many systemic problems that undermine our justice system. The plea bargain process is absolutely one of them where people are constantly under tremendous pressure to cop a plea, which sometimes means admitting to a crime you didn’t commit. Because the system is so overloaded they just want to move on for the sake of efficiency. This happens three times in the film. The third time is the most important one, because, relatively speaking, in plea-bargain terms, it is a good deal and Thurgood Marshall is not there. So both Sam Friedman (Spell’s attorney) and Joseph Spell have to do the right thing. And they both kind of passed the test. They represent us, right? Because we don’t have Thurgood Marshall here, and it is on all of us to do the right thing when called.
TY: Sam Friedman’s role was just as important in the film as that of Thurgood Marshall. He came to believe in the case because in his own life he was experiencing the anti-Semitism of prewar Connecticut’s wealthy society.
RH: So many people who watch it go, “Ri-i-i-ght!” That was all happening at the same time. We are used to compartmentalizing American racism and global anti-Semitism. But the fact is, this was all part of a worldwide movement for white supremacy. World War II was the only war explicitly fought over the idea of white supremacy. And it is very easy for us to get caught up in our own problems and challenges. It’s important to step back and say, “Wait a minute, all these movements are connected. We’re all fighting the same opponent.” So we would be more efficient if we linked arms and fought them together.
In the case of Sam Friedman, one of the reasons why black Americans have been the leaders in the fight against racism is because assimilation is not an option. You know Sam Friedman can say, “I’m basically white and I guess I’ll take the little slights and hope that if I work hard enough maybe I’ll get accepted into the club. Or maybe I’ll start my own club.” But assimilation is much more of an option for him than it is for black Americans. For black folks, we have no choice. We’ve got to break this wall down. That has always put black Americans in the leadership position of these fights for equality for all.
TY: Tell me about the scene with Langston Hughes. Why was that scene important to you?
RH: That’s one of the most important scenes in the film. A lot of people say they don’t get that scene, because so often the struggles for equality are presented with characters who have their backs against the wall; they have no choice. Thurgood Marshall had a choice. He was a college-educated attorney. He could choose to live a comfortable life. He could stay in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance; it was a utopian place to hang out with his college buddies Cab Calloway and Langston Hughes. Instead Marshall leaves that, gets on a train and literally goes to hell. He goes to these towns that would lynch him if he’s there after sundown. He says, I know you don’t think I’m human, and you don’t think my clan is human, but I’m going to change your mind. That’s an extraordinary action. And again, that goes back to who we are. We all live lives of relative comfort. How much are we willing to be uncomfortable and go fight to make change?
The Constitution of the United States of America is without a doubt a milestone in the development of liberal thought, but it is far from perfect and has failed to actually limit the power of the federal government. It is taken for granted, although it was not always intended to protect anyone who was not a white male.
Thurgood Marshall, as played terrifically by Chadwick Boseman in the historical courtroom drama Marshall, made it his mission to reclaim the letter of the law to protect people who were historically excluded from exercising their constitutional rights. The film takes place 1941 and tells the story of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. As the only lawyer for an NAACP in need of donations, he is tasked with representing Spell (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story), a black chauffeur accused of raping Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the wife in a prominent local family, and throwing her into a Greenwich, Connecticut river.
He is reluctantly joined by local insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (the amiable Josh Gad), who wishes to remain out of the limelight and away from a racially-charged case that could impact his family and law practice. The determined and aggressive Marshall kicks him into gear, reminding him what is at stake, forcing him to think about injustices happening at the time at home and in Europe on the eve of the United States’ entry into the second Word War.
In the courtroom they are met with a prejudiced judge (a belligerent James Cromwell) who questions the usefulness of having an out-of-state lawyer represent the defendant, but to make the trial appear to be fair, he allows Marshall to stay as long as he does not speak in court under the threat of being held in contempt. Marshall and Friedman, faced with a major uphill battle, must expose the prejudice and secrets that exist just under the surface in Greenwich to prove the innocence of their client.
Director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang) returns to the director’s chair after a fourteen-year absence and brings us a crowd pleasing and inspiring history lesson about the man who would go on to be the first African American Supreme Court justice. The script, by Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff, unfolds the story in a well-flowing manner and they develop interesting characters that audiences can care about. The tone, despite its subject matter, is rather light and optimistic. Bosemen delivers another outstanding turn as a major American icon after performances as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up, respectively. He and his co-star Gad work well off each other, with Gad providing much of the humor.
While Thurgood Marshall was by no means a libertarian, we can still respect his fight against the institutional racism in the North and the South, and his devotion to providing justice under the law. The film forces us to recognize that rights haven’t always been upheld by the state and must be defended. In this regard, Marshall has a lot to offer libertarian audiences.
* Justin Tucker is a writer and Libertarian activist living in Chicago, Illinois. He is a Staff Writer for URChicago.com and is the Chair of the Libertarian Party of Chicago.
by Pete Hammond
Presenter Billy Eichner put it succinctly when he took the stage at the ACLU of Southern California’s Bill Of Rights dinner last night. “In awards season in Hollywood, the Bill Of Rights Award is considered the precursor to the Golden Globe,” he joked. But he just may be on to something. This is a star-filled affair full of spirit and activism in the age of Trump, whose presence could be felt even if it was a room he would never dare step into. It also wasn’t a bad place to be seen if you also happen to have a movie or TV show in the hunt (among those I spoke with were Detroit’s Will Poulter and Crown Height’s Nnamdi Asomudha who had just been nominated for Indie Spirit and Image awards).
But much more importantly it felt like an energizing evening that was really about something much greater than any trinket Hollywood could hand out. And on a lively and highly political night that featured awards for Jane Fonda, Judd Apatow, Viola Davis, Reginald Hudlin, Gina Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta, it was the surprise unannounced appearance of former San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick who brought the house down at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
With organizers saying his appearance had to be kept under wraps due to death threats and other security concerns, Kaepernick’s arrival onstage had the ambiance of a rock star being welcomed. With nary a Trump supporter to be found, he was greeted as the local hero for his controversial stand of taking a knee during the national anthem before NFL games, which pissed off a President and started a movement and led to many other players following suit.
After a raucous standing ovation upon receiving the organization Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award, Kaepernick seemed to be in his element. “We all have the obligation no matter the risk, and regardless of reward, to stand up for our fellow men and women who are being oppressed with the understanding that human rights cannot be compromised, ” he said, sounding every bit like he might be thinking about running for office someday.
ACLU SoCal Executive Director Hector Villagra, who earlier in the evening had noted the ACLU has launched 56 lawsuits to date against Trump Administration activities, introduced Kaepernick by saying, “He took a stand knowing some would criticize him, and he has been viciously and unfairly criticized. He has been called a traitor because too many people in this country confuse dissent for disloyalty.” After the presentation at the dinner break, Kaepernick was literally mobbed by well-heeled fans trying to take selfies with him. Among those lining up for the chance was departing Open Road chief Tom Ortenberg, a longtime ALCU supporter and awardee.
In addition to Kaepernick, there were presentations before the dinner break of the Bill Of Rights Award to a emotional Rodriguez; a hilarious Apatow; and a riveting and compelling Davis, who cited Martin Luther King Jr’s inspiring “mountaintop” speech, given the day before he was assassinated in 1968 was a particular inspiration for her. She recounted stories of growing up so poor that her family was living with rats running through their apartment. She said that whenever she complains about feeling tired after an 18-hour shooting day, or taking for granted winning yet another award, she realizes there is a much different definition for success. “I have two mottos for 2017, and they are ‘I am doing the best that I can, and ‘I am going to leave it all on the floor’.”
Rodriguez was tearful in detailing what the ACLU recognition meant to her as a Latino representative. “For those of us who make our living in Hollywood, the images that affect our fellow humans are our responsibility. So I accept this award and in doing so accept my responsibility to present a positive image to all those who look to me for inspiration. I will never stop trying to make this country a place where people of all races and ethnicities can feel accepted,” she said.
As for Apatow, he wasted no time in wishing the worst for Trump. “Do you feel weird? We so want there to be a pee tape,” he said, in reference to the infamous dossier rumored to detail incriminating sexual activity on Trump’s part when he was in Russia for the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock (9254974bb)
ACLU SoCal’s Annual Bill of Rights Dinner, Inside, Los Angeles, USA – 03 Dec 2017
Apatow also made observations about the wave of sexual harassment scandals hitting Hollywood since the Harvey Weinstein story broke. “I don’t understand all the masturbating that’s happening out there. I don’t get the idea of masturbating in front of other people. Isn’t the point of masturbating is that you’re alone? Nobody is judging you. Why do you need someone else there? It’s such a lack of imagination,” said to huge laughs from the crowd. “I was so happy when Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer got caught, I said ‘Thank God. Not another Jew’ “. Shortly after his appearance and acceptance speech, Apatow returned to the stage and pledged $50,000 in honor of his upcoming 50th birthday this week. It was matched later in the evening by Participant’s David Linde on behalf of Jeff Skoll and his company.
Producer-director Reginald Hudlin also received a Bill Of Rights Award after a rousing performance by Common and Andra Day of “Stand Up For Something,” the anthem from Hudlin’s current directorial achievement Marshall; the song was written by Diane Warren and is getting lots of Oscar buzz. Hudlin did a shout-out to Warren, who was sitting in the audience next to actress Frances Fisher, with both wearing #StandUpForSomething shirts.
Legendary United Farm Workers of America activist Dolores Huerta, herself the subject of Dolores, an Oscar-hopeful documentary this year, received a standing ovation upon receiving the Lifetime Advocate For Justice Award and led the audience in a spirited chant of “We’ve Got The Power! People Power!”
Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock (9254974eq)
Martin Sheen and Jane Fonda
ACLU SoCal’s Annual Bill of Rights Dinner, Inside, Los Angeles, USA – 03 Dec 2017
Fonda was last to come up after being introduced by her Grace And Frankie co-star Martin Sheen, who said of the star-activist, “One heart with courage is a majority.” She recounted how the ACLU has been with her all her life. “So has the FBI,” she laughed. “After this election I felt like I had been hit by a truck, but when in doubt become an activist.” Fonda received the Ramona Ripston Liberty, Justice and Equality Award and quoted a line from poet Pablo Neruda to describe the determination and confidence she still has after nearly 50 years of social work and protest. “They can cut all the flowers but they can’t hold back the Spring”.
My mom and her dear friend Annette May with Colin Kaepernick.
Me, Anette May, Maxine Waters and my mom.
Andra Day SLAYS “Stand Up For Something” with Common.