A 1940s Connecticut “Crime of the Century” courtroom drama, written by Connecticut attorney Michael Koskoff and exploring the rich personality of a young Thurgood Marshall, hits big screens nationwide next month.
Simply titled “Marshall,” the fact-based film is anything but a mere biopic about one of American history’s most revered jurists, as it centers around one of the most scandalous criminal cases of the 20th century, involving a beautiful rich white woman accusing her black chauffeur of brutally raping her before throwing her into a reservoir.
Seventy-five-plus years ago, the reaction was significant. Even in the reputedly progressive northeast, white families reportedly began firing their black servants en masse as the hate-inspired myth of the black bogeyman rose to the top of an eager-to-convict national consciousness.
On an early morning in December 1940, Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing was found wandering near a reservoir, distraught, with scrapes and bruises. She accused her newly hired African-American chauffeur, Joseph Spell, of kidnapping and repeatedly raping her before throwing her off a bridge into the icy water. Amid skepticism about Strubing’s story, a young and dynamic Thurgood Marshall, then litigation chief of the NAACP and later to become the nation’s first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, was sent to defend Spell with local attorney Sam Friedman in “an atmosphere charged with racism and anti-Semitism,” according to Koskoff.
Remembered as a footnote in Marshall’s illustrious history, the Spell case’s lurid details made for a sensational tale on front pages across the country. The tale was first revisited by Koskoff at the suggestion of a friend, the late attorney Jacob “Jack” Zeldes. Zeldes knew Koskoff’s son Jacob was a well-known Hollywood screenwriter, including recently authoring the 2015 adaptation of “Macbeth.”
“I said I had never heard of the case,” Koskoff recalled in an interview this week. “Jack had already done a lot of research on it and he said ‘Why don’t you have your kids do it?’ With the younger Koskoffs busy working on other projects, Koskoff set out on his own to develop a script.
“I wrote it about the trial, and it really focused more intensely on the trial itself and less intensely on the characters,” he said.
Koskoff met Friedman’s daughter, Lauren, who loved the screenplay. “She happened to have a best friend who is a Hollywood producer, Paula Wagner,” Koskoff said, the same Paula Wagner who co-founded Cruise/Wagner Productions with superstar Tom Cruise. From there, a team was formed, including director Reginald Hudlin and actor Chadwick Boseman in the starring role. Kate Hudson co-stars. The film’s scheduled release date via Open Road Films is Friday, Oct. 13.
Koskoff said he was fortunate also to be a welcome fixture on the set during filming of “Marshall” in Buffalo, New York, where his expertise as a trial lawyer was often sought. “I know what goes on in the courtroom and I know what goes on in what are called political trials. I’ve been through many of them. Most people who write about courtrooms have never been in one, and I practically live in one,” he said.
Koskoff said writers are usually not invited to participate in the filming process. “The director usually says, ‘You’ve done your job, now let me do mine—get out of my hair,” he said. But courtroom procedures and stylistic points were sought in this case. Meanwhile, Jacob Koskoff’s expertise in character development was a key piece of the puzzle.
Since the movie is written by an attorney and centers around the mind of a legend in the history of American law, the question of Spell’s innocence or guilt is not the primary focus. “It’s true, he’s not the most savory character. He’s got a spotty past, and that’s the kind of thing that’s addressed in the movie,” Koskoff said. “It comes up very early on, when Marshall responds to that. He says criminal defendants often do have spotty pasts, and yet you defend them. It doesn’t mean that they’re guilty.”
For his part, Marshall did not believe Strubing’s story from the outset, and the NAACP had a policy of defending only clients they believed to be innocent. In 1941, “it was virtually impossible” for a black man who was accused of raping a white woman to be acquitted, Koskoff added.
Marshall, who had already gained notoriety for traveling around the country in support of civil rights cases, is portrayed as a young, vibrant and funny 32-year-old man. “He’s tall, incredibly handsome and very outgoing. He had an incredible sense of humor,” Koskoff noted. “He’s an amazingly fun-loving person. He likes to party, he likes to drink his bourbon and he’s best friends with Langston Hughes.” While the Spell case is a compelling tale, Koskoff says this glimpse into Marshall’s early life is an entertaining look at his character. Also important is the bond Marshall forges with Friedman, a flamboyant attorney known for his courtroom antics, and the groundwork Marshall laid for future civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.
In the end, the movie should play well to a broad audience, including attorneys, Koskoff said.
“In a lot of ways it’s a tribute to our system of justice and to the jury system. We still have juries who still can protect people. That is what this movie is about.”