Years before Thurgood Marshall persuaded the United States Supreme Court to outlaw school segregation, years before he became a member of the Supreme Court himself, he founded the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In that capacity, he traveled all over the country giving legal assistance to criminal defendants in racially charged cases.
In 1940 and 1941, that job brought him to Bridgeport to defend an accused man in a case that grabbed headlines then but is largely forgotten today. A movie being released nationwide on Oct. 13 — "Marshall" — will bring The State of Connecticut vs. Joseph Spell back into the spotlight.
Moviegoers have Bridgeport attorney Michael Koskoff to thank for that. Koskoff, a principal at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, started writing the screenplay to "Marshall" about nine years ago. He is excited to shine a light on an early episode in the battle for racial equality.
"Most young people think the Civil Rights movement started with Martin Luther King Jr. But it was going on for years before that," Koskoff says. "Thurgood Marshall was fighting the battle in a different form.
"This is an opportunity to show him, to tell a story that is pretty much lost to history. ... He was an empowering figure. He was able to use the law for the benefit of civil rights, for the benefit of his people."
"Marshall" tells the story of Spell, a chauffeur and butler who in December 1940 was accused of rape and attempted murder by his employer, Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing. The NAACP hired Sam Friedman, a Bridgeport civil trial attorney, to represent Spell. Marshall was brought in to help Friedman, who had no experience as a criminal defender.
Nationwide, white Americans assumed Spell was guilty. The press depicted him with racist cartoons and sensational headlines, and African-American domestic servants feared losing their jobs in the wake of the accusation.
Koskoff, 75, was urged to write the screenplay years ago by the late Jacob Zeldes, of the Bridgeport law firm Zeldes, Needle & Cooper. Zeldes had researched the Spell case decades after it happened.
Koskoff felt comfortable telling Spell's story. Koskoff's father, Theodore Koskoff, founded Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder in 1936. Since then, the Koskoff family has had an eyewitness perspective on Bridgeport legal history as it unfolds.
Koskoff's own professional experience came into play, too.
"In the past I have been involved with high-profile cases, involving race and controversy. Not many people have that background," says Koskoff, who defended the Black Panthers in 1970 and worked with African-American police and fire organizations to increase representation of minorities in public safety.
"I also know what happens in a courtroom. I've been a trial lawyer since 1966. I thought, 'There aren't a lot of really good movies about what happens in court.' The people who make those movies have never been in court. I had inside knowledge."
But to succeed as a screenwriter, Koskoff needed a different kind of insider, a Hollywood insider. He got his first insider access in an unexpected way: Lauren Friedman, Sam Friedman's daughter, was friends with super-producer Paula Wagner ("Mission: Impossible"). She showed Koskoff's first draft to Wagner, who liked it but said it needed work.
Koskoff's second Hollywood insider was easier to find: his son, screenwriter Jacob Koskoff. The Koskoffs worked together to perfect the script. The father and son share a screenwriting credit. They also are listed as executive producers, and Lauren Friedman as a co-producer.
Koskoff's daughter, Sarah Koskoff, also is an actress and screenwriter, who wrote "Hello I Must Be Going." It was filmed in Westport, where Koskoff lives with Rosalind, his wife of 51 years. The Koskoffs' other two children are lawyers: Joshua, who practices with KKB, and Juliet Diamond, who lives in New York.
"Marshall" stars Chadwick Boseman as Marshall, Josh Gad as Friedman, Sterling K. Brown as Spell and Kate Hudson as Strubing. Dan Stevens of "Downton Abbey" portrays prosecutor Lorin Willis and James Cromwell depicts Superior Court Judge Carl Foster. The film is directed by Reginald Hudlin.
The movie was filmed in 2016 in upstate New York. It was not filmed in Connecticut because of the state's moratorium on filmmaking tax credits.
Lauren Friedman has a small role as a gossipy friend of Friedman's wife. In another interesting bit of casting, a couple who greet Marshall at a train station at the end of the film are played by the parents of Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager shot to death in 2012 by a homeowner as Martin walked through a neighborhood in Sanford, Fla.
"That was [Hudlin's] idea. He wanted to bring the whole civil rights thing into the 21st century," Koskoff says.
In an interview recently, Gad called the film "a superhero origin story."
"Instead of the superheroes wearing capes, they wear suits and ties. Instead of knocking somebody out with a single punch, they knock them out with one brief at a time," Gad says on the online interview series Build.
Koskoff would agree.
"Marshall was like a marshal, a United States marshal, going from town to town dispensing justice. ... He came from a pretty nice life in Harlem and went out to a risky one. When he traveled through the South, there are these little towns where nobody had seen a black lawyer before. He worked alone. Some judges were members of the KKK. The juries are all white and are biased. It took courage to go in and try these cases.
"This case was not in and of itself an extraordinary case, but it is a great vehicle for who Thurgood Marshall is and how he influenced and bonded with people."
Marshall didn't bond with everyone. Willis is depicted as a bigot. In the film, Friedman quips that Willis hates anyone whose ancestors weren't on the Mayflower — and Foster is depicted as Willis' enabler. Widespread bigotry is dramatized with protests on courthouse steps, whispers in Friedman's synagogue, fistfights with violent racists. One character, however, is redeemed by a "come to Jesus" moment when the character finally, slowly and silently, realizes the evil of racism.
Koskoff says many of those things happened and others are fictionalized examples of prevailing attitudes of the time. That one character's epiphany reflects Friedman's memories, Koskoff says.
The furor over the case also is depicted via lurid headlines in newspapers. "The myth of the black man who is oversexed and looking to rape white women is a myth that has plagued the African-American community," Koskoff says. "This is a myth that the New York press latched onto."
The depiction of Willis, Koskoff says, reflects the man's true character.
"My father knew Willis. He said Willis was a man who took pleasure in sending people to jail. He believed him to be a bigot."
He added that in real life Foster was no prize either. "He was an SOB," Koskoff says.
Other situations are surmised based on evidence gathered surrounding the case. Also, a speech Marshall makes from the courthouse steps never happened, Koskoff says, but reflect Marshall's beliefs and goals.
The facts of the case are accurate, Koskoff says, although at times the facts are reordered for dramatic purposes.
The greatest element of surprise was the friendship that developed between Friedman and Marshall.
"There's no way to know that," Koskoff says. However, Koskoff used the collaboration between the two to reflect a reality both historical and personal.
"The movie is also about the black-Jewish alliance that was a very significant part of the Civil Rights movement. These were two men fighting for justice for one poor man."
MARSHALL opens nationwide on Friday, Oct. 13. Check your local theater for showtimes.