A rising star in the courtroom. A jury of no peers. A seemingly unwinnable case. If done right, the film should be compelling to watch–and it is!–but the fact that we know the rising young star is a young Thurgood Marshall gives the film extra sizzle.
Twenty-six years before Thurgood Marshall made history by becoming the first African-American Supreme Court Justice; thirteen years before he famously argued in Brown v. the Board of Education that separate schools were not equal, a charismatic young Thurgood went to Greenwich, CT, to defend a black chauffeur accused of the rape and attempted murder of his employer. The year was 1940. Thurgood was 32, married and living in Harlem, but most of his time was spent travelling the country for the underfunded and understaffed NAACP.
The odds were stacked against attorney Marshall and his less-than-credible client. It was mostly a she said, he said case, and she was Eleanor Strubing: 33, beautiful, a socialite from a prominent Philadelphia family, married to an old money advertising executive who was away on business during the night in question. He was Joseph Spell: 31, raised in Louisiana, dishonorably discharged from the army for drunkenness and stealing, estranged from a wife he never divorced. And yet, the NAACP’s very publicly-stated policy was to represent clients like Spell only if they believed them innocent. Thurgood believed in Spell’s innocence, even though his co-counsel, white local attorney Samuel Friedman, initially did not. Part of the joy of the film is watching the prickly pairing of Marshall and Friedman and watching it evolve–especially since the judge hearing the case won’t allow Marshall to speak or question witnesses during the trial.
Was the sex between Joseph and Eleanor consensual? If it was, why would a woman like Eleanor make it news before anyone learned about it–assuming they ever would. During the course of Marshall’s storied career, Connecticut v. Joseph Spell is like a footnote in a brilliant manuscript. But in 1940-41, it was a big deal for the NAACP. You can imagine the lurid headlines: Beautiful Socialite Raped Multiple Times by Black Chauffeur, Thrown off bridge into reservoir & left for dead. Newspapers up and down the east coast had readers riveted and scared. Wealthy northerners started firing their domestic black help. And since most work for blacks was domestic–even in the north–this was a serious problem. The head of the NAACP chapter in Bridgeport, CT–where the trial took place–was a Fordham University grad but worked as a chauffeur.
Any footnote in the life of a great man or woman begs for further reading. Here are a few things I found out:
*Thurgood is a striking name, but not half as striking as the one his parents gave him: Thoroughgood. By the 2nd grade and fed up with writing such a long name, the boy shortened it.
*As a child, Marshall described himself as a “hell raiser.” If he misbehaved or was too argumentative at his all-black high school, his teacher would send him (and others) down to the basement to memorize parts of the U.S. Constitution. “I made my way through every paragraph,” he said.
*Thurgood graduated from an historically black college but wanted to attend law school at the University of Maryland. They wouldn’t let him because he was black. Two years after graduating from Howard University Law School, he helped try the case of another black student (and Amherst grad) denied admission to Maryland’s law school, and won. Today the Law Library there is named after Thurgood Marshall.
*President Lyndon B. Johnson picked Marshall for the Supreme Court in 1967 and the Justice served until 1991, stepping down two years before his death at 84. At that time, Marshall’s widow Cissy told The Washington Post that Justice Hugo Black was the one who swore in her husband, which was ironic because Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan when he was young. “Then when he got into the court, he turned out to be one of the most liberal justices.”
*The NAACP was founded in 1909, partly in response to the continuing horrific practice of lynching and to a race riot in Springfield, IL–the place where President Abraham Lincoln is buried. A group of white men and women issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. About 60 people showed up–only seven were African-American.
Michael Koskoff, 74, is the man who co-wrote the Marshall screenplay (with his son). The New York Post ran an article on him earlier this month. A litigator from Bridgeport (where the Spell trial took place), Koskoff had started researching the little-known case at the suggestion of a friend. He gave the idea to his children, who are both screenwriters. They told him he was the lawyer and a good storyteller to boot, why didn’t he write it? In the NY Post article, Koskoff says, “Most people who have an image of Thurgood Marshall have an image of a jowly, heavy, maybe avuncular [person]–and that was how he appeared later in life. But when he was young, he was this guy–he was a kick-ass, party-loving, courageous and brilliant lawyer.” Koskoff also said that Marshall’s family was very happy with the portrayal. His widow Cissy said, “That man who played Thurgood. He’s a good actor and a very handsome man. But not nearly as handsome as Thurgood was.” I agree that Chadwick Boseman, as young Thurgood, nailed the part.