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“Marshall” — Civil Rights and Old-Fashioned Shul Jews

Elliot Gertel
November 19, 2017

by Elliot B. Gertel

Discussed in this essay: Marshall, a film directed by directed by Reginald Hudlin and written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff.

THE WELL-WRITTEN and finely-acted movie Marshall may have taken some liberties in depicting Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) and Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), the Bridgeport, Connecticut Jewish attorney who helped out with a noted early NAACP court case ( But it remains significant as the effort of a Jewish father-and-son writing team, Michael and Jacob Koskoff, to tell the important story of this trial and to depict Jewish life in the early 1940s.

When we meet Friedman he is representing insurance companies against the claims of handicapped old ladies. But in high school he had an African-American classmate who, although discriminated against in his efforts to practice law, is active in the NAACP and regards Sam as possessing basic integrity and decency. On his recommendation, Thurgood Marshall -- a young, super-talented lawyer, future Supreme Court justice, and two-fisted hero (as depicted here) -- decides to enlist Sam Friedman in the case of an African-American chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who is accused of rape by his white employer (Kate Hudson).

The writers portray Friedman as reluctant to get involved, and credit his old classmate for recruiting him only by getting Friedman’s brother to file the petition.Friedman complains that the case will “destroy my practice” and that the NAACP is using him, while scolding Marshall for just “sweeping through town” with “nothing to lose.”

The writers paint young Thurgood as cocky and calculating. (They insist on sharing that the unflappable, dedicated, and virile Thurgood Marshall surmounted even the loss of a testicle in his youth while fleeing over a sharp fence from a racist mob.) When Sam picks him up at the train station, he hands Sam his heavy suitcase filled with lawbooks. Marshall is also not shy about his accomplishments, including a successful legal battle to integrate the University of Maryland Law School. The writers make a point of having him advise Sam at every step and juncture. Their goal seems to be the depiction of a Jewish attorney who embraces the talent, experience, and the sense of urgency of an African-American attorney who has been battling for a long time in the courtroom as in everyday life for civil rights.

In time, Marshall comes to trust Sam to the point that he tell his client Joseph, “We’ve got weapons now…[that] our people didn’t have before. We got the law and we got Sam.” Ultimately Thurgood tells Sam, “I need an army of lawyers like you…,lawyers who don’t yet know they want to make a difference,” and proclaims, “You’re one of us now, Sam, haven’t you noticed?”

Sam returns the respect. At one point, the prosecutor tells Sam: “I thought Jews were supposed to be smart, but you sound just like the Negro [Marshall].” Sam replies: “That’s the best compliment you could have given me.”

He quickly recognizes Marshall’s brilliant legal instincts. At an alleged crime scene, Thurgood invokes (or improvises) an “old Negro superstition”: “Always take a piece of the earth with you.” This tactic proves invaluable to the court case. He also proves to be most perceptive with regard to prospective jurors.

At the same time, Sam does not lose sight of his Jewish heroes. After he is beaten by some Klan-like hoodlums (not without punching back), Marshall tells him: “You look like the Jewish Joe Lewis.” “Barney Ross is my guy,” Friedman responds.

It is clear that even in Connecticut, as in the South, discrimination against blacks is rampant in the courts, resulting in Thurgood being relegated by the judge to a mere advisory position. Yet even this rigid and exclusionary judge has a light bulb moment during a response by the defendant. The film proudly proclaims that the partnership between Marshall and Friedman succeeds at enlightening and maybe even inspiring American society as a whole.

WHEN MARSHALL discovers that Sam must be his mouthpiece, he quotes (immodestly?) God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus (4:16), regarding Aaron: “And he shall be God’s spokesman to the people, that he shall be to you a mouth, and shall be to him in God’s stead.” Impressively, Sam is able to complete the verse. I waited for references to the Joseph story, since there are parallels to the Potiphar’s wife story and the defendant is named Joseph, but the writers chose not to mix their biblical metaphors.

Interestingly, they depict Friedman as immersed in Jewish practice and culture. It appears from a scene in which his wife cooks flanken that she keeps a kosher home. She comments about her family perishing at Krakow. Friedman is also familiar with the Yiddish language. At one point he tells his brother, “Irwin, shoyn genug — enough already.”

The Friedmans attend synagogue regularly, a classic Conservative shul, indigenous to New England, in which the traditional prayers are chanted with organ (and choir). In the restroom, a Jew who appears quite traditional hands Friedman a contribution for Joseph’s defense fund. If I recall correctly, it was a $5 contribution, a good amount of money for the early 1940s, but not enough for the drama of the restroom venue and certainly a strange place and time for breaking the Sabbath. What did the writers have in mind? Did they want to show that sympathetic traditional Jews felt that they needed to choose a (somewhat) clandestine spot to offer support blacks? Or was the man acting spontaneously on a desire to help?

In the synagogue, congregants talk of a black maid dismissed by the Jewish family that had employed her for eleven years but now fears possible peril from her male relatives. Understandably, the writers want to show that synagogue attendees were not immune from racist profiling. But mostly they don’t have their Jewish characters stand up to it. That is handled by Thurgood, and with a mocking, effective wit. When a newspaper publishes caricatures of a Thurgood and Sam that would rival the racism of Nazi propaganda, Marshall quips to Sam without blinking, “That doesn’t look anything like me, does it?”

All in all, Marshall is an impressive glimpse at a significant partnership between an African American lawyer and a Jewish lawyer during the early years of the civil rights movement, in which the two writers take great pride. The writing team takes equal pride, it would seem, in the Jewish lawyer being a shul mentsh, immersed in Jewish vocabulary and practice.

While inveighing against the bad old days of racial discrimination in America even as Hitler’s racism was destroying Europe, the movie does look nostalgically at the heyday of synagogue involvement, in which, to use Mordecai Kaplan’s terms, there was a sense of “belonging” to the synagogue whatever the degree of one’s “believing,” and Jewish “behaving” preserved at least aspects of religious observance as “Jewish civilization.” That generation is disappearing, though this film does raise the question, intentionally or not, as to whether those ties to synagogue and Jewish life have brought a precious and irreplaceable quality to social action by Jews, both then and since.

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for thirty-five years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.