During Black History Month, We Remember U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Gifts
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
From the very beginning everyone knew he was different. Tall, charismatic and articulate even at a young age, he disdained the glory of the Baltimore playing fields and instead entertained his family with wry anecdotes and sardonic commentaries about local baseball and football teams that were popular around the neighborhood. Blessed with a mellifluous, hypnotic baritone voice, he dominated every classroom and debate hall he entered, enrapturing his audiences with his easy charm and uncommon intelligence.
Graduating at the top of his Howard University law school class, he turned down Harvard University’s offer to continue his legal studies in Cambridge and instead took a low-paying associate’s position with the NAACP — National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — in New York City. His friends and classmates were bewildered, but Thurgood Marshall had found his home and for the next thirty years, he marched into steamy, sweltering courtrooms across the American South and raised his voice against a Jim Crow legal system that was arbitrarily murderous and ferociously brutal to the powerless and destitute. Traveling endlessly across the country, he handled over 500 cases a year, often arriving alone in small, dusty hamlets or sprawling, big cities armed only with a satchel filled with legal papers and law books. His legal victories, which included the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision, became the stuff of legend and the cornerstones of the subsequent Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which leveled the playing field for all Americans.
Ultimately, Marshall argued 32 cases before the United States Supreme Court, winning 29 of the decisions using a combination of folksy humor, steely eloquence and a bulletproof command of the Constitution that was unparalleled.
In 1940, the 32-year-old Marshall traveled to Bridgeport, Conn., where a wealthy socialite, Eleanor Strubing, had accused her chauffeur, Joseph Spell, of raping her multiple times before attempting to murder her by throwing her bound body off of a bridge. Upon his arrival, Marshall was barred from defending Spell and was instead forced to turn the case over to an inexperienced, local insurance lawyer named Sam Friedman, whom he guided surreptitiously from the sidelines as he sat muted at the defense table.
Why this obscure side note in Marshall’s legal career became the first major film about Thurgood Marshall’s remarkable life is a question that this movie fails to answer. Written by Michael and Jake Koskoff and directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Marshall” is a disappointing puzzle that feels disjointed and misinformed from the very start.
While Hudlin’s movie is titled “Marshall,” it is Friedman who sits at the beating heart of this story, as he changes from a comfortable passerby who doesn’t want to get involved to a firebrand who spent the rest of his career fighting for civil rights. It is Friedman who rode the dramatic arc of the narrative to find redemption at the movie’s end, while Marshall hovers around the courtroom like a ghostly apparition, muttering grimly at every twist of the plot. Played by Chadwick Boseman, who previously appeared on screen as Jackie Robinson (“42”) and James Brown (“Get On Up”), Marshall is a cardboard cowboy full of cool wisdom, tough talk and streetwise bravado, which only emphasizes how wrong the movie’s writers and director have gotten their story. In reality, Marshall was an irrepressible bon vivant who was filled with all too human insecurities, flaws and contradictions that often humbled him in the dark hours of the night. Deeply in love with his first wife, Vivien Burey, he could not remain faithful to her and spent most of their marriage fighting the good fight far away from their Harlem apartment in the arms of other women. Unashamed to admit the terror and fear that sometimes descended upon him when he traveled through the South, Marshall’s great weapon as he entered those archaic and antiquated courtrooms was not his swagger but his intellect and preternatural understanding of human nature. This is the Marshall story that should have been pursued more deeply and is instead only hinted at in Hudlin’s film.
By the end of the movie, Strubing’s testimony begins to implode and Friedman delivers the dramatic closing argument, which ultimately convinces the jury to free Spell. Marshall has already fled the scene, traveling to his next assignment like a wingless angel seeking his next conversion.
In 1967, Marshall became the first person of color to be nominated to the United States Supreme Court where he served for 24 years and become a fierce guardian of the First Amendment and a tireless protector of American civil liberties. At the core of his life’s work was a deep, unwavering and abiding faith in the power of the Constitution, and its wisdom as a living, breathing, organic document that must grow with the times. Too bad Hudlin and the Koskoffs couldn’t have made a movie about that. Now that would be a movie worth waiting for.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.