Delivering justice in film


OK, so this article dates back 15 years or so, but Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn analysed popular representations of justice in film and some of their points remain interesting (and could be applied to more recent films and literature). They wrote:

The courtroom has long been used as a vehicle for drama. It is an arena in which dramatic tension can easily be built, and with the added ease of constructing grand soliloquy and speech. This trend is echoed in film portrayals and advocacy offers the chance for an actor to display great oratory. Historically, the classic law film has revolved around a formal and serious courtroom drama with clear identification of the search for justice. Prime examples of the genre include Young Mr Lincoln ,To Kill A Mocking Bird, Inherit the Wind, and through to more contemporary examples such as Suspect, The Verdict and Philadelphia. In addition, films such as Brothers in Law and My Cousin Vinny have ploughed the comedic quality of lawyers and legal process. The exploration of law has further moved towards the ethics of lawyers in films such as Devil’s Advocate, and the internal workings of the law practice; The Firm. In previous work we have also identified certain common characteristics of the main participants which have spanned a range of films over a period of time. Interestingly judges have tended to have a rather limited role within legal films with the major roles occupied by the lawyers, although Let Him Have It and And Justice For All provide examples of judges occupying a more central role.” (p.36)

“In a contemporary sense, the most obvious examples of external (to the courtroom) justice are those films that deal with the concept of street justice – sidewalk law enforcement. There is an obvious link to the western with the latter-day sheriff being represented by the homicide detective. The issue is not to enforce the rule book of arrest but to ensure that perpetrators pay for their crimes even if this includes an element of summary ‘smoking gun’ justice. The key is the perceived guilt and unworthiness of the offender who may escape formal justice, in the courtroom, through evidential problems or technicalities.” (p.37)

“Non-police legal vigilantes are not new to film, The Star Chamber shows how a disillusioned judge played by Michael Douglas is invited to join a clandestine group of judges who dispense their own brand of justice in ‘messy’ cases. Their method of remedying deficiencies in the legal system is to employ hitmen to dispense ‘real’ justice. The theme of disillusionment and helplessness in the face of an inert legal system is carried on in Criminal Law where Gary Oldman turns from lawyer to vigilante to pursue a wealthy client who he has been acquitted but who Oldman later discovers to be guilty. Apart from extra legal and police vigilantism, the closest we get to civilian direct action, given the antipathy towards mob justice, are the vigilante movies which portray the (usually lone and sometimes ex-police officer) wronged individual who decides that it is payback time in response to a personal incident, e.g. Deathwish. What then of such vigilantism in the post modern surveillance society of the future?” (p.39)

“Perhaps more than any other institution, the courtroom has been put into crisis by postmodern conditions. Politicians and preachers have always known that the truths that matter are those which can be made to work in specific conditions, educators have always known that their curriculum includes and excludes according to the balance of power that can be achieved in the conditions of its writing, but courts, whose immediate effects are emphatically real (imprisonment or freedom, uprisings or stability) are premised upon the achievability of an objective truth and the effectiveness of rationality, as a human universal, as a means of achieving it. When both truth and reasoning are contingent rather than objective, the legal system experiences crisis. Tabloid television and the Rodney King video was surely the nadir of tabloidism, is part of that crisis, part symptom, part cause, partly a move toward coping with it, partly a move toward continuing it, but inescapably part of it.” (pp.43-44)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn (1999) Film, law and the delivery of justice: The case of Judge Dredd and the disappearing courtroom. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 6(2) 35-45


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