Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Ziad Sheena
is a Bachelor of Commerce graduate, and currently a second year law student at the University of Alberta.



These images help foster the idea that a liberal justice system allows too much leniency to criminals, and that this system is somewhat diseased, as "it cannot insulate us completely from the risk of antisocial violence."

Is Law A Diseased System?

by Ziad Sheena

Involved in almost every aspect of our daily lives, it is not surprising that the law is such a constant theme in popular culture. Individuals can easily identify with legal films, as they present an adversarial story, often with a winner and a loser. These stories provide an opportunity to frame interesting societal conflicts and issues. Unfortunately, entertainment value appears to take precedence over legal realism in Hollywood, leading to a host of negatively portrayed lawyers, operating in callous courtrooms. Consequently, the law is depicted as a diseased system, often failing the people, and creating the notion that justice is best served outside the courts.

In the classic, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Gregory Peck plays the role of Atticus Finch, an honest lawyer, in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Arguably the most positive image of a lawyer ever portrayed in film, one can only admire Finch's honesty, intelligence, decency, and persistence in standing for justice. In addition, as the single parent of two children, Jem and Scout, Finch is conveyed as a warm and caring father.

Much to the displeasure of several town members, Finch agrees to represent Tom Robinson, a good-hearted black man wrongly charged with the rape of a white girl, Mayella Ewell. The outlook does not appear favorable for Robinson, as racism runs deep through this small southern town. Will Robinson's innocence be proven, and justice served in such a difficult scenario? No need to panic, as Atticus Finch is in Robinson's corner, and one should not forget that Finch is the quintessential lawyer, he will surely save the day. Or will he? Regardless of Finch's valiant efforts in revealing Mayella's father, Bob, as responsible for her bruises, the ignorant jury still finds Robinson guilty. This decision depicts the law as extremely unjust especially since the innocent Robinson is later gunned down as he attempts to flee the guards.

How could this happen? Robinson, a selfless and honest man, was quite clearly innocent. So much for Finch's belief in the courts being "the great levelers in society". Interestingly enough, Finch later admits that Robinson did not have a chance at trial. If even the law devoted Finch is somewhat skeptical of the system, why should anyone else have faith in its ability? This indeed leaves a sour taste for the law, as one begins to wonder how many Robinsons has the law failed because of racial animus.

Despite the court's inability, it appears some sense of justice was still achieved outside the confines of the law. During Bob Ewell's attack on Jem and Scout, the town outcast, Boo Radley, comes to the aid of the children by killing Ewell. It seems fitting that the man responsible for the fate of one "Mockingbird", a harmless, but mistreated second-class citizen, fell to the hands of another. Regardless of Ewell's death, the racial bias in this film depicts weakness in the legal system imposing a realization that justice is not always color-blind.

As we witness the law fail in the presence of the purest of heroes in To Kill a Mockingbird, the same result can be found amidst the most evil of villains in Cape Fear (1991). In this film, Max Cady (Robert DeNiro), a psychotic rapist just released from prison, seeks revenge against his former lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). He believes that Bowden purposely disregarded an important document relating to his trial, which may have granted him an acquittal. Cady wishes to teach his former lawyer a lesson in loss, as he attempts to terrorize Bowden, his wife and their young daughter.

In spite of his unethical decision to withhold information crucial to his client's case, one can somewhat identify with Bowden's choice, especially after witnessing the horrifying scene in which Cady rapes Bowden's colleague, Lori Davis. In any event, one soon realizes that the law is unable to offer any protection against a clever madman, as Cady manages to harass and threaten Bowden and his family within the legal limits. Especially for a character that practices the law, this is an ironically sad realization that something like this can be allowed to happen. These images help foster the idea that a liberal justice system allows too much leniency to criminals, and that this system is somewhat diseased, as "it cannot insulate us completely from the risk of antisocial violence." (1)

Irritated with the incompetence of the authorities, Bowden chooses to take the advice of a private investigator, and hires some thugs to take out Cady. Unfortunately, Cady manages to brush off the thugs, only to later slap Bowden with a lawsuit. The irony grows as Bowden finally gets his day in court with Cady, but as a defendant, rather than a complainant. As we all begin to tug our hair in frustration, Cady's slimy lawyer begins to hurl attacks, claiming Bowden has been harassing his client since his release from prison.

Forced to take the law into his own hands, Bowden plots to trap Cady using his family as bait. Unfortunately, things fail to go as planned, and Cady comes ever so close to exacting his revenge on the Bowden family. This comes as great news to aspiring lawyers and judges as courtrooms certainly become expendable when justice can just as easily be served by conjuring a plot, risking one's family, and essentially turning oneself into an action hero for an evening or two.

Legal concepts like fact and fiction, guilt and innocence, and responsibility and causation, appear blurred throughout Cape Fear. Richard K. Sherwin discusses how this film conveys the notion that the rule of law is a narrative construct used to alleviate anxiety. Does this mean authority is simply an illusion? Appearing to have its limitations, the images constructed in this film seem to agree, as one begins to wonder whether the law can really guarantee justice.
Apart from these public sphere examples, legal depictions in film appear to worsen in the private sphere, particularly those concerning custody battles. In Kramer v. Kramer (1979), Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a workaholic whose family always comes second. Consequently, Ted's wife Joanna (Meryl Streep), becomes fed up with her neglectful husband, and decides to leave him. Ted must now learn how to take care of their young son Billy, manage the home, and balance a career.

Ted is initially presented as an image of parental incompetence. It is difficult to believe that a grown man would have such difficulty making breakfast. What cliché will we see next, the infamous diaper change scene? In any case, Ted learns to adapt to his new responsibilities, and in the process, Billy becomes his first priority. Just as this turn around takes place, Joanna returns, informing Ted that she wants her son back. Ted refuses and the two turn to the courts.

As the Kramers arrive in court, the trial immediately becomes adversarial. There is almost no mention of Billy as both Ted and Joanna's lawyers are portrayed as vicious and cold, out to destroy the opposing parent's credibility. There is hardly any client consultation as both lawyers quickly take over the trial and turn this custody battle into a mud-slinging affair. As the viewer, we know nothing of Joanna's history with Billy, and surprisingly, her lawyer's arguments do nothing to change this. Joanna's lawyer fails to focus on his client's strengths as a mother, and Ted's neglecting history as a father. Instead, we witness a flurry of humiliating attacks on Ted in regards to his recent demotion. Even more surprising is the fact that Ted's supposed "hardnosed" lawyer did nothing to counter these attacks. Why not argue that Ted's career sacrifice illustrates his devotion to Billy? Why not bring in Ted's old boss to explain why he got fired? Ted's lawyer fails miserably as these examples would have definitely helped Ted's case.

Matters continue to turn ugly for Ted as Joanna's lawyer attacks the lack of supervision concerning Billy's fall in the park. Unfortunately once again, there was no mention of Ted rushing Billy to the hospital, and staying with him the entire time. Clearly depicted by their facial expressions, neither Ted nor Joanna, appear comfortable with the ongoing character assaults. Sadly, the judge appears to have no difficulty permitting the lawyers to act in such a manner. In any event, Ted loses the case, and Joanna is awarded custody of their son.

These images convey the legal system as hardhearted and unfair. As an audience, we sympathize with Ted's inability to be a father, and then later sympathize as he struggles to keep his child. By the end of the film, we see Ted as a hero, and a great father. He has overcome all the gender implications of his role, only to be threatened by the more traditional expectations of how parenting should happen. The law does nothing to help Ted, as one lawyer attempts to tear him apart, while the other does little to defend him. These events foster one's anger towards the legal system, leaving viewers with the conception that "there is something wrong with a legal process that would fail to prioritize Ted's custody claims."(2) The end of the film reinforces this notion, as Ted and Joanna, without the interference of courts and lawyers, agree to arrangements that serve their son's best interests.

In I am Sam (2002), law is once again the adversary as Sean Penn plays Sam, a mentally challenged single father with a seven-year-old daughter. Similar to Kramer v. Kramer, this film unrealistically skews the audience to one side, as both stories begin with an irresponsible mother abandoning her child, leaving a struggling, but loving father fighting to prove his parental abilities to an unsympathetic legal system, starring negatively portrayed lawyers. In any event, the state finds Sam unfit as a father, and he loses custody of his daughter.

As an audience, we witness the struggle of characters like Ted Kramer and Sam, and delight in their ability to conquer the odds. The flourishing of their relationship with their child, makes it all the more difficult to see their triumph trumped by the courts. Regardless of whether the courts are making the proper decisions, one cannot help but feel that justice has failed as we are given a verdict we do not wish to hear. The image of the courts tearing loving parents and children apart, create the notion that one cannot return to the courts for any help, as all trust in the system is lost. The law is thus viewed as interfering with our private lives, perhaps to the point where one begins to fears the intrusion of law.

Do these negative portrayals of the legal system simply create entertaining stories, or should this law student be concerned about the ideologies surrounding his future profession? The influence of popular culture on societal attitudes can make it difficult to separate entertainment from reality. However, Hollywood distortions should not allow one to perceive the law as being a diseased system. If anything, the law is a very "human" system, one with vulnerabilities that are often best understood through a social perspective.

(1) Richard K. Sherwin: "Cape Fear: Law's Inversion and Cathartic Justice" (1996) 30 U.S.F.L. Rev. 1023, at 1025.
(2) Papke, David Ray, "Peace Between the Sexes: Law and Gender in Kramer v. Kramer" (1996) 30 University of San Franciso Law Review 1199, at 1204.

Posted March 21, 2005

Would you like to comment on this article? Please submit your comments here.

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views