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‘Marshall’ sets stage for litigator’s rise

Reginals Hudlin’s legal thriller focuses on early case in Thurgood Marshall’s ascendancy to the U.S. Supreme Court

Colette Greenstein | 10/11/2017, 10:44 a.m.
The film, utterly engaging from beginning to end, is set up as a legal thriller as opposed to a cradle-to-grave ...
Chadwick Boseman stars as Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall.” Barry Wetcher

Film director Reginald Hudlin has always been a huge Thurgood Marshall fan. So, it was no wonder that he jumped at the chance to direct and produce the film “Marshall” when he received a call from producer Paula Wagner (“Mission: Impossible”) about the project. When he read the script, it wasn’t what he expected, he says, speaking by phone recently — and both filmmaker and producer found it “completely intriguing.”

If you go

”Marshall” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, October 13.

Written by attorney Michael Koskoff and his screenwriter son Jacob Koskoff, “Marshall,” opening this week, stars Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall. The film focuses on one of Marshall’s earliest and least-known cases for the NAACP — The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.

It’s December 1940, and the 32 year-old Marshall is sent to Connecticut to represent Spell, a black chauffeur, who was accused of rape and the attempted murder of Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing. Judge Carl Foster refuses to allow Marshall to defend Spell, and the NAACP litigator partners with Samuel Friedman (played by Josh Gad), a young Jewish civil trial attorney from Bridgeport, Connecticut, as part of Spell’s defense team. Friedman, who has never tried a criminal defense case, becomes the lead attorney, since the judge silences Marshall during the courtroom proceedings.

The case would set the stage for Marshall to become a prominent civil rights activist and attorney, and also lays the groundwork for him later to become the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

In addition to Boseman, the film also stars Kate Hudson (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) as accuser Eleanor Strubing; Sterling K. Brown (NBC’s “This Is Us”) as defendant Joseph Spell; Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as prosecutor Lorin Willis; and James Cromwell (HBO’s “The Young Pope”) as Judge Carl Foster.

The film, utterly engaging from beginning to end, is set up as a legal thriller as opposed to a “cradle-to-grave” biopic, Hudlin says. It was his intention to make Marshall less iconic and more relatable.

“As a fan of Thurgood Marshall and all great men and women, it’s very easy to put them on a pedestal and let them sit. We admire them but we don’t relate to them, and that’s especially easy to do with Thurgood Marshall, because we mainly know him as a Supreme Court Justice — an older man in robes in this cloistered world,” explains Hudlin. “By jumping to his superhero origin story, we see him very much as a man, a young man with swagger. He smokes and drinks, flirts and fights, and you go, ‘Oh, you’re a dude. And I relate to you. Yes, you’re a hundred times smarter than me but I relate to you.’”

Hudlin, who thinks that Thurgood Marshall has been underrated in history, hopes that audiences will leave theaters discussing the movie that day and the next, and the next. “I want people to really get the full range of emotion out of the movie. And ultimately, I want people to feel inspired,” says the director.

He adds, “It’s really easy, with watching the news, to feel anxious, to feel depressed. This movie shows you in the past we faced overwhelming odds, impossible obstacles to overcome, and we beat them. We can come together; link arms and we can do it again.”