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SJCF: Marshall (film discussion)

The Saratoga Jewish Cultural Festival, with a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern NY and sponsored by Temple Sinai, presents a Zoom discussion of the 2017 film Marshall, a story of Thurgood Marshall before he became a Supreme Court Justice arguing a case for a black man, Joseph Spell, accused of rape in 1940 Connecticut.

Marshall was aware of the bias he might be fighting against with a jury comprised entirely of white citizens. He had threats made against his life for taking on such cases in the past and would receive more of that type of threat in this case and in future cases. The outcome of the case didn’t just matter for the defendant as an individual, and as a continuation of racism directed against black men, it also affected local African Americans, many of whom were employed as domestics. If the case was lost, they might soon have even fewer options to earn income. The jury returned with a verdict for acquittal of Spell. The case was so famous that Spell’s name appears in a letter from French novelist Carl Van Vechten to poet Langston Hughes.

Marshall was representing not only the defendant, but also the NAACP whose cases were usually focused on Southern states. This case reveals how such prejudice was rampant in the North as well. Not only has practically every white person in town already made up his or her mind against the defendant, but they were clearly threatened by the idea that a fancy black lawyer might travel all the way from New York to have an alleged rapist beat that rap, as if anyone in town was willing to take the case.

Marshall was written by a father-son team, Michael and Jacob Koskoff. Michael was himself a Connecticut civil rights lawyer who knew a thing or two about the field. He brings insight to the case that might otherwise have been overlooked, such as the technical arrangement by which the law required a local co-counsel. A Jewish lawyer, Sam Friedman and Marshall found themselves in an intriguing situation. Marshall could not personally address the court, but called the shots for Friedman who was initially fearful that trying such an unpopular case would destroy his legal career, apart from being less than thrilled to be taking under-the-table orders from the out-of-town stranger.

However, as a Jew in wartime America, Friedman’s own experience with anti-Semitism added a natural point of empathy with his client. By the end of the trial, he has put total trust in Marshall who dictates the closing argument where Friedman infuses his partner’s words with a personal conviction of his own. “It wasn’t the last time Marshall would prove his courage in a challenging case,” says Phyllis Wang, Coordinator of SJCF. “He argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29 of them. The northern media did not do a very good job of looking in their own back yard when it came to racism and segregation. And it still happens.”

SJCF will present a Zoom discussion of Marshall on August 3 at 7 PM.
Registration is required. Please email sjca.sjcf@gmail.com