Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:25 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Allegations of rape and attempted murder, fights and beatings, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 8, 2018
Copyright 2017 Open Road

“It’s a real life Bigger Thomas,” says a character describing the new case assigned to a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman). Bigger Thomas was the young black protagonist who could not escape the fundamental racism of American society in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, accused of rape and murder. In this real-life case, a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of “This is Us”) was accused of rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy Connecticut socialite. Marshall, then the entire legal staff of the NAACP, was going from town to town representing black defendants, many whom “confessed” after being beaten and starved, but, Marshall insists, only those who are innocent. They do not have time or resources to devote to those who did what they are accused of.

This case is unusual because it is in the North and because it is so high-profile. It has been a front page story in the newspapers and many white families are firing their domestic employees because they are so terrified.

Connecticut may not have the overt, explicit racism of the Jim Crow laws, but in some ways that makes fighting its version of bigotry more difficult. The judge (James Cromwell) refuses Marshall the normally automatic courtesy of allowing him to represent Spell in court without being a member of the state bar association. Instead, a local lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) must argue the case, even though he has no experience in criminal trials and is very reluctant to get involved. “That must be difficult,” Marshall tells him wryly. “To have a reputation to think of.” Marshall may sit at the counsel’s table but may not address the judge or examine witnesses. He says that not being allowed to speak is the worst blow he has had as a lawyer, worse than having to enter the courthouse by the back door.

This is an absorbing drama on many levels, working purely as an “Anatomy of a Murder”-style courtroom mystery, as a historical depiction of the roots and mechanics of social change, and as the personal story of the two young lawyers facing enormous professional and personal challenges, developing a friendship, and becoming better at what they do.

The screenplay by father and son Michael and Joseph Koskoff is forthright in addressing the complicated ethics of preparing a defense for an individual client that many not always be consistent with the larger political imperatives. It also delicately if not always sucessfully skirts the complicated problem faced by contemporary films based on real-life events: if the white character teaches the black character, it’s condescending, but if the black character teaches the white character it’s “magical Negro.” In real life, Samuel Friedman was already active in civil rights cases before the Spell case, and he was slender and athletic. But for dramatic purposes, here he is played by Josh Gad and his character only takes insurance cases. We first see him winning for an insurance company on a technicality that leaves the disabled plaintiff without any damage payment. And Marshall’s character changes very little over the course of the film. He is sophisticated, tough, smart, and confident all the way through which is great as a tribute to one of the towering figures of the 20th century, but without some kind of character arc like the one given to Friedman, the risk is that he becomes a supporting character in the movie that has his name in the title. Fortunately Boseman is intensely charismatic and a gifted actor who is able to bring a great deal to the role, and he and Gad have a strong chemistry that benefits and is benefited by director Reginald Hudlin’s gift for understanding when comedy is needed to lessen the tension. Brown is also excellent in a role far removed from the high educated and successful characters on “This is Us” and “People v. O.J.” Indeed, the entire cast is outstanding, especially Hudson, Ahna O’Reilly as a juror, and Barrett Doss as Marshall’s host and friend.

The film balances the personal, the political, and the professional lives of its heroes and is frank about the opportunism — and the opportunity — of their choices. It places it in the context of its time, as Friedman’s family in Eastern Europe is captured by the Nazis and white thugs attack both lawyers. It makes its case as effectively as Friedman and Marshall make theirs — that courage and persistence bring change and that there are good people out there who will work, with all of our help, to make it happen.

Parent should know that this story concerns a real-life trial for rape and attempted murder with sexual references and situations, themes of racism including beatings and police brutality, some strong language, domestic violence, and some strong and racist language.

Family discussion: Why did Marshall represent only innocent clients? Did Spell have a fair trial? What has improved since that time? What has not?

If you like this, try: “Separate But Equal” and “Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP”

NOTE: Read my interview with Boseman and director Reginald Hudlin at

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Crown Heights

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, murder
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright Amazon 2017
The story of Damon and Pythias has exemplified friendship and loyalty since the time of the ancient Greeks. The story of Colin Warner and Carl King should stand beside it. King spent 21 years working to get Warner released from prison after he was unjustly sentenced for murder. A reporter for “This American Life” told their story, and now it has been adapted for the screen by former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays King opposite the extraordinarily gifted LaKeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” “Short Term 12″) as Warner.

The friends met growing up in Trinidad and then reconnected when both emigrated to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Writer/director Matt Ruskin and Director of Photography Ben Kutchins evoke the lively but volatile and gritty atmosphere of 1980 Brooklyn. Warner is not even in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is nowhere near the spot where an apparent revenge execution-style murder is committed. But the cops are overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure to produce arrests and close cases. Archival footage of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush promising crackdowns on crime provide context.

It is possible that determination to be fair to as many people as possible costs the film some dramatic momentum, especially as it stretches over decades, with setback after setback and complication after complication, plus the various family stresses, particularly with King as his wife understandably gets frustrated with the time and money he is devoting to Warner instead of their children. But the dignity and sensitivity of the performances by Stanfield and Asomugha hold the story together. But the time King takes a job as a process server in order to better understand what kind of legal help they need, things begin to pick up. A tender romance and a touching expression of forgiveness give the film a quiet power that I hope will not always feel as timely as it does right now.

Parents should knot that this story concerns a wrongful murder conviction and includes peril, violence, abuse, strong language, some sexual references and situations, and some nudity.

Family discussion: Why does this film title refer to the neighborhood, not the people involved? Why didn’t Carl give up? Listen to the story that inspired this film on “This American Life.”

If you like this, try: “Conviction” and “Hurricane”

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Posted on October 6, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Copyright 2016 Bleeker Street
Copyright 2016 Bleeker Street
You can refuse. You can disagree. You can object. You can argue. But none of those words is as charged as “denial,” with its multiple uses all implying injustice, unfairness, even bullying. The title of this film establishes immediately that the courtroom and media battle it depicts is not one of popularity, reputation, or consensus. It is about the core issue of proof — how we know what we know, and, in this case, what that means as we approach the time when everyone with a memory of the experience in question is gone.

The experience in question, in the most literal sense of the term, is the Holocaust. David Irving (Timothy Spall, all oily charm), a British self-described historian, wrote and lectured widely about his view that Hitler never ordered the killing of Jews in concentration camp and that in fact there were no gas chambers used for mass executions of Jewish prisoners. He was intentionally offensive — in both sense of the word. He said:

Ridicule alone isn’t enough, you’ve got to be tasteless about it. You’ve got to say things like ‘More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.’ Now you think that’s tasteless, what about this? I’m forming an association especially dedicated to all these liars, the ones who try and kid people that they were in these concentration camps, it’s called the Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars, ‘ASSHOLs’. Can’t get more tasteless than that, but you’ve got to be tasteless because these people deserve our contempt.

And he took his case to the classroom of a professor who specialized in the Holocaust, Emory’s Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, feisty but thoughtful, with a red perm, bright scarves, and a Queens accent), to confront her in person, without notice but with a video camera. She refused to debate him, saying that it would legitimize his arguments. And she described him in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, as:

one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain’s great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.

He wanted more than a classroom confrontation after that. He filed a lawsuit against Lipstadt and her publisher, and he filed it in England, where the laws are more favorable for plaintiffs in libel cases. In the US, the person filing the suit has to prove his or her case. In the UK, it is up to the defendant to prove the truth of the statements made. In cinematic terms, the legal and physical setting heightens the inherent courtroom drama — all the wigs and posh accents and strangeness of the rules boost the theatricality of the presentation, especially after Lipstadt learns that neither she nor the Holocaust survivors who are vitally concerned with the trial will be allowed to testify. For Lipstadt, not being permitted to use her voice was a whole separate category of denial.

This is a compelling courtroom drama that goes to the deepest questions not just of Holocaust history or any history but of how we know what we know and who we believe. It is always tempting to say “let’s listen to both sides.” But as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.” The meticulous combing of Irving’s work to check footnotes and translate original documents (funded by Steven Spielberg and other donors) proved that Irving’s “conclusions” were based on misrepresentation. The meticulous combing of his shelves and shelves of diaries proved his bias. This is a compelling drama and an urgent reminder of the importance of rigorous challenges to unsubstantiated, malicious “history.”

Parents should know that this film deals with the Holocaust, with references to genocide and ethnic bigotry. It includes social drinking and some strong language.

Family discussion: What evidence would you want to see if you were the judge in this case? Should Professor Lipstadt have testified?

If you like this, try: This C-SPAN program about the trial, featuring Irving and Lipstadt and the website that includes the trial documents

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The American Bar Association’s Six Types of Movie Lawyers

Posted on August 18, 2016 at 3:19 pm

The American Bar Association’s ABA Journal magazine has an article about movie lawyers that is not the usual top 50 list. Thane Rosenbaum writes about the six types of movie lawyers: crusading, heroic, obtuse, disillusioned, vengeful, and buffoons. Of course, some of the best movies have lawyer characters who fall into more than one of these categories. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has the greatest of all movie lawyers, Atticus Finch, who is heroic and crusading. “Anatomy of a Murder,” based on a novel by a lawyer/judge and starring a real-life judge as the movie’s jurist, had a lawyer who was disillusioned and heroic, and so did “The Verdict” and “Michael Clayton.” “My Cousin Vinny’s” title character was a buffoon and sometimes obtuse, but a hero, too.

I’m a lawyer from a family of lawyers, and I love movies about the law, including the ones listed above (I have to point out that “The Verdict” is completely inaccurate and even “Anatomy of a Murder” has one huge mistake). I especially like movies about real-life lawyers like “Gideon’s Trumpet,” “Amistad,” “Erin Brockovich,” and the upcoming “Loving.”

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Trailer: Loving

Posted on July 17, 2016 at 8:00 am

“Loving” stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the real-life couple who challenged miscegenation laws all the way to the Supreme Court.

Every family should see the outstanding documentary about the case, The Loving Story.

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