Law books and research in ‘Marshall’ (2017)

“You’d better start reading then.”

Today is the premiere date for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the final film role of Chadwick Boseman’s brilliant and all-too-short career. Boseman, who plays trumpet player Levee, and his co-star Viola Davis, who plays the title role of Ma Rainey, are getting rave reviews. I still get emotional whenever I think of Boseman’s passing. He died of colon cancer on August 28, 2020, at the young age of 43. By all accounts, he was a wonderful, caring, and dedicated man who was always giving back and paying it forward. Even though Boseman’s career was short — his first television role was in 2003 and his first film role was in 2008 — his list of film credits (only 15 total movies!) includes stellar turns playing iconic and inspiring Black men, including Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in Get On Up (2014), and of course, T’Challa, King of Wakanda, in Black Panther (2018). Boseman’s role as Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017) also joins this list.

Here’s a trailer for the movie:

“Marshall Trailer #1 (2017)” by Movieclips Trailers, Standard YouTube License

Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court Justice, serving on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1967 through 1991. Before that, he was a lawyer for the NAACP, criss-crossing the United States to defend people of color and work on cases focusing on racial prejudice. As NAACP chief counsel for Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood successfully argued that case in 1954 before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin, does not delve into Marshall’s more well-known cases or his tenure as a Supreme Court Justice. Rather, we get to know the measure of the man during his early career and how Marshall also helped inspire others to join the fight for racial and social justice. The film is set in 1941 and focuses on an early case in Marshall’s career, State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, a case in which a Black chauffeur (played by Sterling K. Brown) was accused of raping Eleanor Strubing (played by Kate Hudson), a wealthy White woman. Josh Gad co-stars as real-life attorney Sam Friedman, who worked as local counsel alongside Marshall. Friedman, a Jewish lawyer, had been working in insurance cases, and this trial marked his first experience as a criminal defender. Friedman had to serve as the case’s lead counsel because the Connecticut judge had forbidden Marshall from speaking during the trial.

These screenshots below depict the scene in which Marshall introduces Friedman to the press.

NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) introuces Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to the press, in a scene from Marshall (2017)
NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) introuces Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to the press, in a scene from Marshall (2017)
A birds-eye view of Marshall and Friedman in front of reporters
A birds-eye view of Marshall and Friedman in front of reporters

Almost 30 minutes into the movie, Marshall tells Friedman he has to start preparing for the criminal case.

Marshall: You say you’ve never tried a criminal case before, right?

Friedman nods.

Marshall then takes out a stack of law books out of his case and puts them on the desk. The camera focuses on the stack of books, and their titles are plainly visible, as seen in the screenshot below.

Marshall: You’d better start reading then. You’ve got one month.

Law books from Marshall's bag.
“You’d better start reading then.”

Although short, this scene is impressive because it shows how prepared and professional Marshall is — he’s got a stack of law books in his case! — and how he is also prepared to help mentor a colleague. The scene also reinforces how research is the backbone of legal justice. And those law books do look realistically worn and used.

But let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Here are the titles of the legal tomes that Marshall pulls out, the ones he wants Friedman to study for their upcoming criminal case:

  • A Concise Restatement of Torts, Second Edition, is about civil law, and it wasn’t published until 1965.
  • There are two volumes of Wigmore on Evidence from the McNaughton Revision series, which were not published until 1961. As the film’s Goofs page states: “Evidentiary law discussed in Wigmore applies in both criminal and civil cases, so Friedman, a trial lawyer, would already be familiar with it.
  • The tan volume on top is Volume 308 of the United States Reports, which contains all the U.S. Supreme Court opinions from October 1939.

None of these titles are exclusively about criminal law. Three of the four volumes that Marshall pulls out of his case in 1941 had not been published yet. And the other volume is about the U.S. Supreme Court, which would have no bearing on a criminal case in a state court. Propmaster FAIL.

I appreciate the focus on research in this scene from Marshall, but it’s best to get the details right, especially for a cinematic close-up. Maybe next time, consult with a law librarian?

Ultimately, Marshall is a fine example of Boseman’s acting talent, and the film does justice to Marshall’s career and legacy. You can read more about the real-life case here in this Smithsonian Magazine article and here in this article with Friedman’s daughter, Lauren Friedman. The movie itself lands in the Class V category of reel librarian films, the category for movies that include research and/or library scenes but no actual librarians.

Have you seen Marshall? Do you also tear up when thinking about Chadwick Boseman? Are you planning on watching his final film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:


Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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