Jurisprudence and Film

James R. Elkins

I teach Lawyers and Film and I recognize a vast array of films that I do not use in the course because I associate the films, less with lawyers and more with law and jurisprudence. Teaching a Jurisprudence and Film course, I would consider the following films:

"A Cry in the Dark" (1988)
"A Dry White Season" (1989)
"A Man for All Seasons" (1966)
"A Time to Kill" (1996)
"Amistad" (1997)
"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
" 'Breaker' Morant" (1980)
"Cape Fear" (1992) & "Cape Fear" (1962)
"Chicago" (2002)
"Cool Hand Luke" (1967)
"Dead Man Walking" (1995)
" Dirty Pictures" (2000)
"Falling Down" (1993)
"Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996)
"Inherit the Wind" (1960)
"In the Name of the Father" (1994)
"I Want to Live!" (1958)
"JFK" (1991)
"Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961)
"Laws of Attraction" (2004)
"Mad Max" (1979)
"Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985)
"Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" (1981)
"Missing" (1982)
"Natural Born Killers" (1994)
"Paper Chase" (1973)
"Rashomon" (1950)
"Red Corner" (1997)
"Runaway Jury" (2003)
"Reversal of Fortune" (1991)
"Snow Falling on Cedars" (2000)
"Star Chamber" (1983)
"Straight Time" (1978)
"The Advocate" (1994)
"The Accused" (1988)
"The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962)
"The Green Mile" (1999)
"The Insider" (1999)
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" (1962)
"The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943)
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996)
"The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)
"The Trial" (1962)
"The Winslow Boy" (1999)
"The Wrong Man" (1956)
"Thelma and Louise" (1991)
"Twelve Angry Men" (1957)
"Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)
"Z" (1969)


N1. Anyone teaching a "jurisprudence and film" course will want to consider the films I now screen in Lawyers and Film: "Adam's Rib" (1949), "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962), "The Verdict" (1982), "Class Action" (1990), "The Castle" (1997), 'The Sweet Hereafter" (1997), "The Last Wave" (1977).

One might consider still other films in the lawyer film genre, which I've used, or considered for use in my Lawyers and Film course: "A Time to Kill" (1996), "Bringing Down the House" (2003), "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), "Presumed Innocent" (1900), "Primal Fear" (1996), "Regarding Henry" (1991) "Suspect" (1987), "The Accused" (1988), "The Client" (1994), "The Devil's Advocate" (1997), "The Firm" (1993), "The Rainmaker" (1997), "True Believer" (1989)

N2. "A Man for All Seasons" (1966) is a stunning film, made all the more interesting by a reading of the Robert Bolt play on which the film is based.

N3. "Brubaker" (1980), "Cool Land Luke" (1967), "Dead Man Walking" (1995), "I Want to Live" (1958), "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), "The Green Mile" (1999), and "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994) are films about the death penalty, prisons, prison life, and prison administration.

On the portrayal of prisons in film, see Melvin Gutterman, “Failure to Communicate” The Reel Prison Experience, 55 SMU L. Rev. 1515 (2002); Teree E. Foster, I Want to Live! Federal Judicial Values in Death Penalty Cases: Preservation of Rights or Punctuality of Execution? 22 Okla. City U. L. Rev. 63 (1997); William Haltom, Laws of God, Laws of Man: Power, Authority, and Influence in Cool Hand Luke, 22 Legal Stud. F. 233 (1998); Roberta M. Harding, Celluloid Death: Cinematic Depictions of Capital Punishment, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1167 (1996); Carole Shapiro, Do or Die: Does Dead Man Walking Run?, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1143 (1996).

N4. On the various jurisprudence films set forth in the list above, see: Carolyn Patty Blum, Images of Lawyering and Political Activism in In the Name of the Father, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1065 (1996); Robert Louis Felix, The Ox-Bow Incident, 24 Legal Stud. F. 645 (2000); Orit Kamir, Judgment by Film: Socio-Legal Functions of Rashomon, 12 Yale J.L. & Human. 39 (2000); Paul A. LeBel, Misdirecting Myths: The Legal and Cultural Significance of Distorted History in Popular Media, 37 Wake Forest L. Rev. 1035, 1041–42 (2002); Douglas O. Linder, Salvaging Amistad, 31 J. Mar. L. & Com. 559 (2000); Steven Lubet, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Truth or Justice in the Old West, 48 UCLA L. Rev. 353 (2000); Philip N. Meyer, Criminality, Obsessive Compulsion, and Aesthetic Rage in “Straight Time,” 25 Legal Stud. F. 441 (2001); Nell Minow, “An Idea Is a Greater Monument Than a Cathedral”: Deciding How We Know What We Know in Inherit the Wind, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1225 (1996); Osborne M. Reynolds, Jr., Review of Cool Hand Luke, 22 Okla. C. U. L. Rev. 97 (1997); David S. Sokolow, From Kurosawa to (Duncan) Kennedy: The Lessons of Rashomon for Current Legal Education, 1991 Wis. L. Rev. 969 (1991); Robert Waring, Z, 30 USF L. Rev. 1077 (1996).

N5. "Incident at Oglala" (1992) and "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) might be added to the list of films to be considered in a Jurisprudence and Film course. Both are documentary films and the decision to include them in a film course comprised primarily of fictional films presents pedagogical issues I will not attempt to address here. For more on this issue, see Charles Musser, Film Truth, Documentary, and the Law: Justice at the Margins, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 963 (1996)(discussing "The Thin Blue Line" as an example of film documentaries on trials and the issues involving factual truth presented by such documentaries).

One might also want to address fact/fiction problems presented by films like "A Civil Action" (1998), "A Man for All Seasons" (1966), "Erin Brockovich" (2000), "Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996), "Inherit the Wind" (1960), and "Reversal of Fortune" (1990). These films are based on the lives of historical characters and events. For an exploration of the fact/fiction problem, see Colleen Coughlin, Law at the O.K. Corral: Reading Wyatt Earp Films, 22 Legal Stud. F. 133 (1998)(analyzing ideology and Wyatt Earp narratives); Steve Greenfield & Guy Osborn, Pulped Fiction? Cinematic Parables of (In) Justice, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1181 (1996)(analyzing films based on two landmark criminal cases); Paul A. Lebel, Misdirecting Myths: The Legal and Cultural Significance of Distorted History in Popular Media, 37 Wake Forest L. Rev. 1035 (2002)(focusing on Oliver Stone’s "JFK" and Steven Spielberg’s "Amistad").

With real-events-based films, it is all too easy to get side-tracked by the kind of questions that have followed Oliver Stone’s real-events based films: Does this film “accurately” portray the characters and the real world events in which they were involved? Is the film a misreading of history? And, what does it mean when real world events and characters are so thoroughly reinterpreted that they become no more than creative impetus for a film? As interesting and important questions as these may be, they may absorb far too much psychic space to allow for the kind of inquires I take up in a law school film course.

N6. There is, I think, a distinction to be drawn between lawyer films and legal films. In my view, lawyer films are now sufficiently commonplace and have structural and narrative features that qualify them for genre status. The more common approach today, in legal scholarly writings, and beyond, is to recognize a courtroom drama, or trial genre. Most simply described, a lawyer film makes a lawyer, or lawyers, the central feature of the story. A lawyer film may feature a trial (e.g., "Adam’s Rib" and "To Kill a Mockingbird") and the trial may be of significance to the drama (as it certainly is in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), but it is the lawyer or lawyers, and their character, their dilemmas and conflicts, that are the central focus of the film. [On genre and the lawyer film genre, see: genre]

N7. "A lot of the writing on law and film has focused on movies in which the lawyer figure is central. We might call this the 'Atticus Finch Syndrome.' This syndrome conveys the impression that law is mainly about lawyering . . . ." [Cheyney Ryan, The Legal Nocturne, 42 Suffolk U.L. Rev. 869 889 (2009)]