By Richard Friedman, BJF-LJCC Executive Director
It was a powerful movie that made me proud — as an American and as a Jew. The film, “Marshall,” focuses on the pioneering civil rights work the late Thurgood Marshall did in the 1940s as an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This recently-released movie’s central plot is based on a court case involving the alleged rape of a wealthy white socialite by a black man. It takes place in Connecticut. Marshall enlists a Jewish attorney in Connecticut, Sam Friedman, to be lead counsel (because Marshall wasn’t admitted to practice law in Connecticut). The relationship between Marshall and Friedman and the racism and anti-Semitism they respectively encounter provide important subplots.
The relationship between these two lawyers is testy at times but they become bound by their common struggle against hatreds prevalent during that era. Friedman at first even resists helping Marshall, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his career as an insurance lawyer or the well-being of his family.
Marshall’s persuasiveness prevails and a transformation takes place within Friedman himself as he becomes immersed emotionally in the case and the cause.
Marshall, of course, would later become America’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice, nominated in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson. Friedman went on to become a prominent Civil Rights attorney in Connecticut, one of a number of Jewish lawyers who played a prominent role in advancing the cause of fair treatment for African-Americans.
The film is worth seeing not only for the things mentioned above but also because it is a riveting depiction of a fascinating legal case — which even includes a surprise twist that contradicts stereotypes people held about Southerners at the time. (And still do.)
The movie also provides a wide angle look at the problems blacks and Jews faced in America in the 1940s and not just in the South. The anguish and the helplessness American Jews felt over the unfolding Holocaust in Europe also hovers in the background.
So back to feeling proud as an American and a Jew.
The film for sure depicts difficult and unpleasant things about America’s racist past but it also highlights America’s capacity to change — especially when you contrast where we are today versus where we were then. It also is a reminder that in an authentic democracy, no matter how difficult the struggle may be, people and movements of people can affect positive change.
The movie also made me feel proud as a Jew because in a subtle, not in your face way, the film communicates that it was Sam Friedman’s strength of commitment to his own people and faith, plus the difficulties that Jews were facing at that time, that led to his compassion and determination to help others.
Friedman did not turn inward as he could have easily done. Despite his initial conflictedness over helping Marshall he did not say “leave me alone, I have my own problems.”
He stepped forward, as we as Jews are taught to do, and answered history’s call. Perhaps Friedman even heard these words from our ancient sage Rabbi Hillel echoing in his mind: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
“Marshall” is the story of an authentic American legend, Thurgood Marshall; an exploration of a challenging and unpleasant era in American history; a gripping and dramatic legal drama, and the saga of how a Jewish insurance lawyer became a Civil Rights warrior. See it and learn from it. I sure did.