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
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
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.
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