New Plaza Cinema last week hosted one of its popular Zoom presentations with film historian Max Alvarez. The theme this time: The Cinema Seeks Justice, and the examples included courtroom dramas and other stories in which the law was used to achieve greater fairness or to redress wrongs.
Filmmakers wanting to make an “issue movie” face a number of challenges. Perhaps the first challenge is to move past Samuel Goldwyn’s famous admonition: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” If their story based on real life, as all of Alvarez’s examples were, situations probably don’t work out as quickly or neatly as the film portrays. Real life is messy; a film has to be selective about the size of the cast of characters (too many are confusing and require too much backstory) and they may simplify complex stories. Nevertheless, they can be powerful emotional touchstones. Alvarez illustrated a half-dozen issues with the films that portrayed them. This type of film must be popular in my family, because we’d seen most of them.
The issue of human rights emerged in a 2006 film from the late Michael Apted, Amazing Grace, set in 1787 England, in which William Wilberforce struggled to persuade Parliament to abolish Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. While the movie ends on an uplifting note, it wasn’t until 1833 that the practice officially ended. A young Benedict Cumberbatch appears as William Pitt on the anti-slavery side.
The quest for racial justice has any number of strong films, and Alvarez selected the 2017 movie Marshall, set in 1941, in which young NAACP lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) defends a young Black man on a false charge of raping a white woman. His second example was Loving, from 2016, the story of a mixed-race couple who lived in a Virginia county where such marriages were illegal. Their case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, led to the elimination of laws banning miscegenation.
In the environmental justice category, the 2019 film Dark Waters dealt with a DuPont chemical disaster (with Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins) in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the company’s practice of deny, deny, deny. I especially admired Tim Robbins’s performance as the conservative head of Ruffalo’s Cincinnati law firm. In 1998’s A Civil Action, lawyer John Travolta takes on the W.R. Grace Company and Beatrice Foods also for contaminating the local water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. The film is a good example of the long tail of these cases. The lawyers lost this one, but the EPA took it up and, years later, the environmental cleanup in Woburn finally began.
Several noteworthy films have been made about justice for Holocaust victims, including, most memorably, Judgment at Nuremberg, with its all-star cast (Burt Lancaster pictured). Alvarez also highlighted Denial, about the 2000 British trial of David Irving, an infamous Holocaust denier, played by the always excellent Timothy Spall. Playwright David Hare took much of the dialog verbatim from the trial transcript. Glues you to your seat.
The legal system itself can perpetuate injustices, which Alvarez illustrated with the 1993 film, In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four—young men wrongfully convicted of a 1974 London bombing. Police lies resulted in life sentences for them men. After 15 years in prison, they were exonerated and released.
Finally, Alvarez illustrated the issue of what he called global justice with the 1969 Costa-Gavras political thriller Z (in French), a slightly fictionalized depiction of the assassination of a democratic Greek politician. It received Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, winning the latter. (Costa-Gavras, never one to shun controversy, also was responsible for the terrific film Missing, about an American father and wife trying to learn the fate of their son and husband in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Here, the U.S. legal system was no help.)