Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Bozeman) is in a courtroom defending a man who has been accused of a crime. Flash to another courtroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut where Attorney Sam Freidman (Josh Gad) is winning an insurance case against an elderly woman who is in a wheelchair. After getting the winning verdict, Freidman is praised by a supervisor who says he didn’t think there was any way they would win the case.
Marshall is next seen walking into the office of the NAACP. He walks into his boss’ office who tells him he needs to go to Greenwich, Connecticut to speak with a black man who’s been charged with raping, battering, and throwing a wealthy white woman off a bridge before fleeing.
Marshall walks into the prison to meet with Joseph Spell who has been accused of the crimes. Marshall interrogates him very strongly and tells him he only defends people who are innocent. Spell tells him repeatedly that he did not rape or injure the woman. The next scene Marshall is at the house of some people he seems to know (possibly through the NAACP), and they recommend a lawyer named Sam Freidman to help get Marshall a referral by the court to be approved as an out of state attorney. This same friend next goes to the YMCA where Sam Freidman is swimming. When Sam gets to the end of the pool, the man tells him he just needs a referral, and that is it. Sam says no, but the man eventually convinces him to agree to help Marshall get approved by the judge.
The first court scenes we find out that the prosecutor is a young attorney who is being groomed to be a potential senator someday. His father is also close friends with the judge (James Cromwell). It’s obvious in the early actions that the judge is fond of the prosecutor. The judge calls on Sam Friedman as to why he should approve Thurgood Marshall as an attorney in this case, and Sam says that Marshall has argued in front of the supreme court and believed Mr. Spell deserves the best representation. The judge is angry and approves Marshall as an attorney but forbids him to speak in the trial. Marshall stands up upset, and Friedman is upset because now it is clear he will have to participate in the trial and not just be a reference.
The trial begins with Marshall using note cards to press Friedman to ask questions and do things he wants him to do. The prosecutor’s story is that Eleanor Stubring (Kate Hudson) was in her room when Joseph Spell, who was an employee of Mr. and Mrs. Stubring at their house, came into the room with a knife. He put the knife to her throat and proceeded to rape her two separate times. He then gagged her with a piece of cloth from her yellow dress and drove her out to a small bridge. They were pulled over by a police officer, but according to Mrs. Stubring’s testimony, she was too scared to yell at the cop out of fear that Joseph Spell would kill her. So she stayed quiet, and when the cop left, Joseph took her out of the car, threw her over the edge of the bridge into a lake and then threw rocks at her. She was able to make it out of the lake and run up to the road and flag down someone to help her after Joseph had fled the scene.
The media attention is substantial, and after each day in court Marshall boldly speaks that Spell is innocent and tries to rile up the local media, much to the chagrin of Sam Freidman who repeatedly tells him “I have to live in this city after this trial, stop making it hard for me.” After a day in court, Marshall is at a local bar having a drink when a white woman approaches him and begins to talk with him. As they’re talking, two very large white men come up and surround him, looking intent on picking a fight with him. At the same time, Sam Friedman is coming out of the YMCA for his swim when he’s surrounded by three separate men. They call him a slur for Jewish people and proceed to beat and kick him to the ground. His brother Irving drives up and scares the men away, and he helps Sam get to his feet and the car. Flashback to the bar and Marshall begins to be attacked by the two men. But the bartender brandishes a gun and tells them “This is Mr. Yhurgood Marshall. He’s an attorney. and you need to show him the respect he deserves." They proceed to leave the bar. The woman comes to Thurgood and says “Men are just men. And women are just women,” placing her hand on his hand.
Sam walks into his house where his wife is upset and looks like she wants to yell at him. But once she sees him she starts crying cause she knows he’s hurt. She proceeds to tell him that some of her family were killed over in Germany by the Nazis. They embrace and start to cry when a knock comes at the door. Sam picks up a knife and asks who is it, and it’s Marshall. Marshall tells Sam that he realizes that Joseph never raped Mrs. Stubring, but rather they were lovers. The “Men are Men and women are women” line is what made him realize it. They go to the prison to talk with Joseph Spell and press him on his story. He at first denies what they’re saying, but after being pressed finally admits that they had consensual sex. Then she heard a noise after they had made love and got worried her husband might have come back to town.
The next day Joseph Spell is on the stand, and they start to replay the entire night according to how he says it played out. He says they made love twice, and that she told him that her husband beats her. She was drunk and afterward began to worry she might be pregnant or that her husband would find out. They ran off in the car, and when the cop pulled them over, she stayed quiet in the backseat out of fear the cop would see them out together. She then started to worry about being pregnant and getting caught, and she yelled at Joseph that she'd tell people he raped her. So she gets out of the car and gets on the ledge of the bridge and jumps off. At some point, she realized this would be her alibi, and after she jumped, Joseph got scared and drove away. Joseph says on the stand that he lied because the truth would get him killed. “You know what they do to a man like me in the south for sleeping with a woman like her?”
The all-white jury goes into deliberation and while they’re deliberating Marshall’s boss with the NAACP calls him away to another case, this time in Mississippi. Marshall stops by to see his wife first. Earlier in the movie, it was intimated that she lost a pregnancy and Marshall says he only has a little time for her before going down to Mississippi for this next case. While waiting on the jury decision, the prosecutor offers Sam a deal for Joseph of just four years in prison. Sam tells Joseph about the deal, and they decide not to take it. The jury comes back with a not guilty decision to Mr. Spell, and he looks at Mrs. Stubring as she exits the courtroom. Her look doesn’t give away if she was lying or not, but Joseph looks at her like he does feel sorry for her, even though she accused him falsely of this. Sam gets a call from Marshall who is now on his way to Mississippi and tells him about the not guilty verdict. Marshall celebrates by taking a drink of water out of the “whites only fountain.” We next see him meeting with people in Mississippi who tell him they need his help down there.
The movie then proceeds to talk about all the great things Thurgood Marshall went on to do, including litigate Brown vs. the Board of education and become a supreme court justice. Also, says that Sam Friedman became a fighter for civil rights.
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