The KALEIDOSCOPE Interview

Michael Koskoff: seasoned Bridgeport attorney and newly-minted Hollywood screenwriter

My feeling is that we never needed this movie like we need it now.

Long before he sat on the United States Supreme Court or claimed victory in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall was a young rabble-rousing attorney for the NAACP. The 2017 feature film, Marshall, is the true story of his greatest challenge in those early days – a fight he waged alongside Sam Friedman, a young Jewish lawyer from Bridgeport with no experience in criminal law: the case of black chauffeur Joseph Spell, accused by his white employer, Eleanor Strubing, of sexual assault and attempted murder.

Set in Bridgeport and filmed in Buffalo, the film stars Chadwick Boseman and Kate Hudson and opened nationally in October 2017. The screenplay was co-written by father-son team Michael and Jacob Koskoff of Westport, who began working on the film in 2009.

Born in Bridgeport, raised in Stratford, Michael Koskoff is a partner in Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, PC. A renowned litigator specializing in personal injury and medical malpractice, Koskoff earned a reputation early in his career as a civil-rights advocate. In 2008, Koskoff was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work by the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association. He has also received the National Association of Black Patrolmen Dedicated Service Award, the Greater Bridgeport NAACP Waverly Jones Freedom Award, and the Afro-American Educators Association Dedicated Service Award.

The story behind Marshall goes deep into the intertwined history of Bridgeport’s Jewish and African-American communities, circa 1941.

Q: How did you learn about the trial of Joseph Spell?

Michael Koskoff: The story came from a friend of mine, Jack Zeldes, a lawyer who founded the law firm of Zeldes, Needle & Cooper in Bridgeport and who passed away in 2015. He was an outstanding lawyer and something of a legal historian. He and I were talking one day and he said, “There’s a great story that should be told and I think it would make a great screenplay but I’m not a screenwriter.” He knew that I had two children who are screenwriters and he thought maybe one of them would be interested. I brought it to my daughter, Sarah, and my son, Jacob, and at the time, neither one of them was able to do it – they both had other projects – and they didn’t really feel that they had the background for it. So I said, “I’ll try it myself.” I had dabbled in screenwriting before, but nothing ever came to be produced.

I had met Sam Friedman when I was a very young lawyer in Bridgeport and he was an older and more seasoned lawyer in Bridgeport. His brother, Irwin Friedman, was a trial lawyer whom I had tried cases against when I was young and he was my father’s age. The Friedman family was very intimately involved in giving us information about Sam. Then we had the very good fortune to meet Thurgood Marshall’s son, John Marshall, who also provided helpful and useful information and also liked and approved the screenplay.

Co-screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff

Q: Tell us about your own family background.

MK: My paternal grandfather came to New Haven from Elizabethgrad in Ukraine – now Kirovohrad – and he had a fruit stand and wholesale fruit business. My father, Ted, was born in New Haven and grew up in a family of seven children on Orchard Street. He went to Hillhouse High School, then to Wesleyan and to Boston University and became a lawyer. He knew Sam Friedman.

I was born at Bridgeport Hospital and my father had his practice in Bridgeport. We then moved to Stratford, where I grew up, and where I was almost always the only Jewish kid in my class. My uncle, Sidney Penner, who was a physician, also moved to Stratford. He and my mother started the Stratford Jewish Group and we used to hold our services in the Methodist church initially. They put together some money and they got a building on Huntington Road, which we used to call “the building” and the synagogue grew from there. I had my bar mitzvah at the JCC of Bridgeport before we had a temple. I always felt very much accepted. Most of my friends were Catholic and I got along very well with them.

My parents moved to Westport in 1959, when I was in college. In 1966, after I graduated from UConn School of Law, I moved to Westport and we’ve been there since.

Q: How did you get involved in civil-rights litigation?

MK: My father and I together were involved in the trials of the Black Panthers in New Haven in 1970, and that was my entrée into the Civil Rights movement. I was actually involved before then, in college, at civil-rights demonstrations and the like. After representing the Black Panthers, I got involved in representing the black police in Bridgeport. [In 1972] they came to me and said, “If you could represent the Black Panthers, you can represent someone really unpopular, and that’s us.” I ended up bringing a lawsuit in Bridgeport on behalf of the Bridgeport Guardians; at the time, there were only 14 black police officers on the entire force of 460 people, even though the population at that point was more than 25 percent black. We brought a lawsuit to improve hiring and got a huge – basically historic – hiring order to get more black police officers. Then I brought some other cases, for firemen, and one in New Haven with another lawyer named David Rosen.  

Q: What attracted you to the story?

MK: My own experience: the first 10 or 15 years of my practice, I concentrated a lot on criminal defense. I was involved in a number of very significant, high-profile political trials involving race and I was very much involved in civil-rights litigation. So I had a sense of the dynamics that take place in a political trial. It’s different from other kinds of trials and the trial of Joseph Spell had vast political overtones.

This is what hooked me on the story. A woman was found wandering near a reservoir late at night and told a lurid story about having been raped by her chauffeur. The newspapers picked it up and went wild with it. One called it “the sex trial of the century.” It was sort of like the O.J. Simpson case, in some ways. The NAACP decided they needed someone to defend Joseph Spell. They went to Bridgeport and they tried to go to the prominent criminal defense attorneys of the day and no one would go near it. They got to Sam Friedman because the head of the NAACP had gone to high school with him, and essentially begged Sam to take the case.

This was a tremendously courageous thing for Sam to do: he was a young lawyer trying to make a practice for himself – he started practicing in 1936 – and this was not a popular thing for a lawyer to do in those days. At first blush, it seemed pretty much like a hopeless case, a case that couldn’t be defended, so there was absolutely no reason for him to take this case. But he did, because I think he felt the man deserved a defense. Sam was born in Minsk and came to the United States as an infant. He didn’t have an accent but he was still definitely concerned, as an adult, about his ability to assimilate into the greater community. So this was another pressure on him.

Another thing that hooked me is the period of time we’re talking about. This alleged crime took place in December 1940 and the trial was in January 1941. The war is raging in Europe – the U.S. hadn’t entered it yet – Britain is being bombed, Jews are being picked up off the street in eastern Europe, where Sam was from. We have serious times now but, as far as the Jewish population was concerned, we were on the verge of Armageddon. This is in the background of the story and of the screenplay. At the same time, in the African-American community, there were vast changes taking place: because we’re gearing up for the war in Europe, there are job openings in the North, and African-Americans are coming north to get those jobs. This media frenzy caused African-American workers – particularly, domestic workers – to be fired all over the country and that’s why the NAACP felt it was so important that Joseph Spell get a defense.

Q: Did Thurgood Marshall have any kind of relationship with the Jewish community?

MK: Thurgood Marshall’s first job, when he was seven, was with a Jewish merchant [in Baltimore]. The merchant’s son, Sammy Hale, was his best friend. He maintained a very close relationship with Jewish people his entire life. He spoke some Yiddish and moved easily within the Jewish community. He later worked delivering hats for Mortimer Schoen, a Baltimore hatmaker. He was on a bus one day and a man jostled him and made a racial slur. Marshall punched him and the police came and arrested Marshall and put him in jail. Mr. Schoen came and posted bail and when Marshall told him what the man had said, Mr. Schoen said, “You did the right thing.” He felt a very close emotional attachment to the Jewish experience.

Q: How did the screenplay go from concept to production?

MK: There’s so much serendipity that occurred in order to make this screenplay come to life. Alan Neigher is a friend of mine and an entertainment lawyer in Bridgeport; he read the screenplay and loved it, and he knows the Friedman family. He asked if he could show it to Lauren Friedman, Sam’s daughter. Lauren loved it and I didn’t know at the time, but she has a background in theater, and asked if she could show it to Paul Wagner, a friend and producer in Hollywood. Paul really liked it and said to me, “I love this story and I think you’ve done an incredible job with the courtroom scenes, but in order to make a movie and in order to make this viable, the characters have to be fuller and there has to be more backstory.” That was beyond my capabilities. My son, Jacob, expanded the story, developed the characters further, and developed more plot lines to help make the screenplay have more impact. In the end, it was a 50/50 collaboration and it was great because I had the opportunity to work with my son.

Q: What is the focus of the movie?

MK: The larger focus of the movie is on Thurgood Marshall, and the story of his friendship with Sam is illustrative both of the kind of person Marshall was and the kind of heroism that Jewish people have over the years experienced and demonstrated in helping the cause of racial equality – Jews such as the lawyer, Jack Greenberg, who was the director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1961 to 1984, succeeding Marshall. Together, they changed the fabric of American society. The involvement of Jews in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has been essential.

Initially, taking the case posed a threat to Sam Friedman. He received letters threatening him and his family. After Joseph Spell was acquitted, there was a period when he was somewhat persona non grata in a lot of places. But for him, he considered it one of his contributions to society because afterwards, he felt that he had done something worthwhile. In fact, when I say that there’s a shared history of discrimination, for him at the time, as a Jewish lawyer in Bridgeport, there were a lot of jobs and places to live that were closed to him. Most of Westport was “restricted,” as was the Greenfield Hill section of Fairfield, where he moved. Shortly after he moved in, there was a young black doctor and his family who wanted to buy a house there and no one would sell to him. Sam engineered a plot: he got a straw buyer to buy the property and turned it over to the doctor, and Sam took huge pleasure in that. Sam was a very principled person, and that was basically what caused him to do all of that. 

Q: You started writing the film well before the 2016 presidential election. How do you see the film now, in the context of our new administration?

 

MK: I think it's perhaps more important than ever because it appeals to people's higher values, morals, and motives, and it recognizes the importance of having the law there and the jury there to protect people. It recognizes that governments don't always act in a just manner, but within our system, we have the safeguards that can make government work. There's one line in the movie by Thurgood Marshall, which sums it up: “The Constitution wasn't written for us, we know that. But from now on, we're going to claim it as our own, we're going to make it work.” That was sort of the story of his career and it's a story that I think will resonate.

There were a couple of delays in the filming and it ended at 4 in the morning on July 2nd, and by sheer coincidence, that was Thurgood Marshall's birthday. Another coincidence is that it is coming out 50 years from the time he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court.

 

The issues that Jacob and I really wanted to highlight have been respected, for the most part. There are a couple of really nice scenes that show the conflict that a Jewish person would have and did have in those days, as well as the kind of courage to stand up when someone else is being the victim of discrimination – the courage, the risks, the determination, and the exploration of how something like this would fit in with Jewish values.

L to R: Sam Friedman’s daughter, Lauren Friedman; co-producer Jonathan Sanger; wife of Thurgood Marshall, Cecilia Marshall; Michael Koskoff; and sons of Thurgood Marshall -- John Marshall and Thurgood Marshall, Jr.

It took us eight years to get this thing made but there's a quote from Ecclesiastes that I love: “The race doesn't go to the swift, nor riches to the wise, nor the battle to the strong. But time and chance overtake all.”

 

My feeling is that we never needed this movie like we need it now.

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