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Black vs. White in a Ritzy 1941 Connecticut Town

Many people know that Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, was the lead attorney in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, in 1954, that resulted in the integration of America’s schools. Very few people know that early in his career Marshall was one of the tiny corps of attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and that the civil rights group sent him bouncing from one city to another to handle racial discrimination cases.

One of them was rather common, even if it took place in liberal-to-the-bone-Connecticut. In 1941, a wealthy white woman in Greenwich, Connecticut, Eleanor Strubing, had her chauffeur, Joseph Spell, arrested for rape. She charged that he not only raped her four times in one night, but tossed her into the back of a car, bound and gagged, and then threw her off a bridge into a reservoir in an effort to kill her. All of white Connecticut was in an uproar.

You are thinking prejudice in Connecticut in 1941? Oh my, it can’t be. Of course there was. There are hundreds of photos that show blacks sitting in black only movie house balconies in Connecticut, New Jersey and just about anywhere in the Northeast in the 1940s. Those states’ baseball stadiums were still white only and the major league teams in those states were segregated. Connecticut, and its prejudices, was as bad as Mississippi.

Attorney Marshall raced to Greenwich and with local white Jewish attorney Sam Friedman took on the case and were confronted by white protestors when they arrived on the steps of the court house. The arrival set the tone for the story.

The movie about the case, Marshall, is slice-of-life-look at the fabled civil rights crusader and Associate Justice in his early years and it is a gem, a fine film about a little known case in Marshall’s long and distinguished career.

The film has no electricity in it. There are no riots, marches, halls full of screaming people, KKK rallies or all black schools. It is a slowly escalating legal drama that in two hours offers a deep and rich characterization of Thurgood Marshall. He was, in the film, a cocky, handsome young man who always wore his fedora at an angle to top off the brash lawyer beneath it. He had swagger and he commanded all in his world. The movie tells how he and Friedman fought an uphill battle against racism and against a pure white woman’s seemingly unassailable claim that Joe Spell, who had a lot of problems on his own and was no Boy Scout, attacked her.

Marshall, who was forbidden to talk in the court room until he exploded at one point, put together a defense step by step, point by point. He proved that Spell could not have raped her and that she was not bound and gagged and incapable, as she claimed, of yelling for help. Why did she accuse the black chauffeur of the crime, then? What other reason was there?

Chadwick Boseman, a fine actor, does a marvelous job as the young Marshall, full of spunk and passion and delivering powerful speeches about racial justice on court house steps. He tells Friedman, a civil case lawyer, not a criminal defense attorney, how to handle the case and Friedman grows as the story unfolds (Jay Gad is terrific as Friedman). The pair fight with racist goons, break into a white only men’s’ club, stare down a racist judge and prop up their client, a black man so afraid of the world that he a willing to take a five-year jail term in a plea deal instead of fighting for his rights. Other fine performances are by Kate Hudson as Mrs. Strubing and James Cromwell as the judge.

This is not just a film about a rape case long ago, though. It is a film about history in which you learn much. Boseman reminds people of Joe Louis, the great boxer, and Friedman holds up Jewish fighter Barney Ross as his hero. The film shows the boys clubs that existed in the legal societies of the day, outmoded jury selections (there is just one woman on the jury), prejudicial reporters and racist small-town residents. Most of all, it reminds people that in 1941 whether you were guilty or innocent in many people’s eyes depended on the color of your skin. Marshall showed them in Greenwich and in America that it did not – it depended on the law (as he notes wonderfully in the film).

The movie, written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff and nicely directed by Reginald Hudlin, ends in a Mississippi train station with Marshall standing next to a water fountain with a huge "white only" sign over it. He drinks from it, smiles and then walks away, off to do battle with the white supremacists yet again in some other courtroom.

At the very end of the movie, produced by Open Road Films, as credits role, the producers show numerous pictures of the real Thurgood Marshall. In one of them he is leading a march of several thousand people down a city street, coat held in his hand because of the heat. It was yet another march in his crusade, just like the Joe Spell case was yet another case in that journey. Thurgood Marshall marched and lawyered a long way, but in his lifetime the schools were integrated and all of the ‘white only’ signs over water fountains and outside rest rooms were taken down – in many ways thanks to him.

He was always tough, too. As he says in the film, the only way to enter a bigot’s house is to break down the door.