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


Leesa Sylyski
B.B.A., C.L.A., and currently a law student at the University of Alberta.


Read other reviews:

Carrie Menkel-Meadow
Lev Ginsburg

Internet Movie Database
All Movie Guide

This movie portrays lawyers as machines that shred people, and not as those who question testimony. Picking apart people on the stand, effectively crushing them and making them unable to speak, is not reality.

Feature article

I Am Sam: Competence on Trial

by Leesa Sylyski

I Am Sam (New Line Productions, 2001, Director Jessie Nelson [hereinafter, I Am Sam]) is a touching movie of the struggle of a disabled man to retain custody of his little girl. It is a movie that pitted Sam against a seemingly unrelenting rigid legal system, where the unfairness of processes at times overwhelmed the viewer. However, the portrayed injustices are not only unfair to Sam and his daughter Lucy, but also to the viewer as a great misrepresentation of the legal system.

Moreover, the unfairnesses in I Am Sam are in some ways similar to those portrayed in Kramer vs. Kramer (Columbia 1979 [hereinafter Kramer vs. Kramer]). For instance, in Kramer vs. Kramer, the unfairness stemmed from the portrayal of how the court perceived competence, that is, based on gender. The court in I Am Sam seemed to base competence on usual cognitive development. I Am Sam is a new version of an old theme, that being what a court perceives as competence.

Throughout the film the viewer is invited to take Sam's perspective. This is also similar to what happened in Kramer vs. Kramer. Papke writes, "[w]e are invited to accept his perspective. We gaze on what happens in the lawyer's office and in the courtroom from a masculine perch" (D.R. Papke, "Peace Between the Sexes: Law and Gender in Kramer vs. Kramer" (1996) 30 University of San Francisco Law Review at 1201 [hereinafter, Papke]). In I Am Sam, the viewer is asked to take the perspective of a disabled man.

Sam needed a credible witness, being one with higher education and a status job, to help prove parental competence to the court. Sam's friends were thus ineligible. They could not provide useful evidence as to Sam's parenting because they themselves were disabled, and thereby unable to make themselves understood to the satisfaction of the court. Sadly, they were depicted as useless and pitiful.

It was not the intention of Rita, Sam's lawyer to make Sam's friends appear ridiculous. However, she made no attempt to try to introduce their evidence in a way where they could meaningfully express themselves. The cross-examination of these persons, thankfully, not true to life, was degrading to both the people and the legal system.

Sam's lawyer found one witness, a doctor, who provided some evidence about being parented by a disabled mother. However, the evidence was quickly called into question, as there was doubt as to who actually raised the doctor. The judge did not do much to control the Prosecutor's vocal outbursts toward this witness, a clear misrepresentation. Prosecutors and other lawyers are not at liberty to yell at or badger witnesses. They must act respectfully or risk the possibility of being in contempt of court or simply irritating the judge and precipitating professional discipline. "Loose cannons" are not encouraged nor permitted. Furthermore, this doctor did not know Sam or Lucy and so could not speak to their situation, making this evidence of little weight.

The piano teacher, Ann, a last minute witness, was also made out to be an incompetent witness due to her own disabilities (a phobia of some sort and trauma due to her past experiences with her father). Certainly, this line of questioning would not be permitted in court. There is no reason why past experiences with her father would have any bearing on Ann's testimony. It was irrelevant, as was Ann's disability. Her perceptions as a disabled person have nothing to do with her perceptions as a person. She was clear in her speaking and reasoning.

The State, however, had no difficulty in finding competent witnesses. It was rather easy to find an expert witness, a psychologist, willing to attest to Sam's alleged harm to Lucy's development. Also, since the first complaint was from Lucy's school, there were competent prosecution witnesses available, such as the teachers and principal. It is also possible that the State could have called the police officers who had previously arrested Sam. Sam had not understood that he was being solicited by a prostitute and was arrested. He was later released when it was determined that he did not have the capacity to understand the situation. The State thus easily found witnesses that fit the highly educated and well-employed criteria.

Additionally, there was no real effort to evaluate Lucy's usual home environment and so provided biased evidence from the social worker. This was another false impression given to the court and the viewer. There were no ongoing visits to determine what Lucy's life was like. In reality, the competence of a parent is not based on a single visit.

Sam himself could not give good evidence to support his claim of why Lucy should stay with him. There was no adjustment by the court to understand him or to facilitate the process. Sam could not answer complex questions, and no real effort was made to cross-examine him so that he could have explained his view effectively. The judge allowed badgering, complex questioning, which would not be permitted in reality. In effect, the odds were stacked against Sam from the beginning. This is similar to Kramer vs. Kramer, as there, the odds were stacked against the Father when "the producers employ a resurrected and misrepresented maternal preference standard" (Papke, supra at 1205). The standard of competence for Sam was a misrepresented notion of regular mental cognitive ability.

Throughout the movie, Sam was measured as a success or failure in his parenting, work, and social skills. These competencies seemed to be on trial in the court scenes. The burden was on Sam to prove his fitness as a parent. Throughout these scenes, it was obvious that he had a much more difficult time meeting his burden of proof as compared to the burden on the State. The State had no difficulty in showing that Sam had problems functioning in society. However, from these struggles, it was not a far step to infer that Sam was not a competent parent. The State through the strength of their witnesses facilitated the discharge of their burden, which in turn augmented the burden on Sam. The viewer is asked to believe that the court would not even consider the possibility that a disabled man could be a competent parent.

In one telling courtroom scene Sam is being asked by the Prosecutor to explain why he is a good parent for Lucy. Sam is posed complex questions again and again in an aggressive manner. He finally begins to speak about what it means to be a parent by quoting from the movie Kramer vs. Kramer. It contains an exceptional speech about being a father that Sam recites. However, Sam does not know when to stop or alter his testimony to make it sound like his own. He quotes everything including the name of the child in Kramer vs. Kramer. The court and his lawyer are appalled.

It is a harsh criticism of the legal system that Sam was pushed to provide answers conforming to court expectations. Sam did all that was in his power to answer, finally resorting to saying what the lawyer wanted to hear. It is a criticism of inflexibility in asking questions demanding of conforming answers. The court would likely not have been concerned if Sam had quoted from a famous person, for example, Martin Luther King Jr., and said, "I have a dream". Thus, the scene was also a commentary on the inappropriateness of people using pop culture to support their positions. It was a critique of pop culture within pop culture.

Also, in the Kramer film, "the lawyers are sarcastic, unrelenting, and intimidating" (Papke, supra at 1206). The judge "presides over the hearing and fails miserably to restrain misrepresentations of the Kramers' lives" (Papke, supra at 1206). The same can be said of the lawyers and judge in I Am Sam. The lawyers place everyone under a microscope, emotionally destroying the witnesses on the stand. These scenes denounce the tendency of the legal system to "revictimize" witnesses. Although there are numerous safeguards to minimize witness' trauma, it is a common theme in pop culture, not simply these two movies, that these kinder practices are ignored. For example, in movies such as Cape Fear (Universal/Amblin/Cappa/Tribeca, 1991, directed by Martin Scorsese), rape-shield laws are ignored.

This movie portrays lawyers as machines that shred people, and not as those who question testimony. Picking apart people on the stand, effectively crushing them and making them unable to speak, is not reality. There is no semblance of an actual cross-examination where lawyers do ask probing questions, but do not set out to inflict trauma, which will require years of therapy to recover from. It would be of no benefit to a client to engage such a lawyer. The most detrimental effect of these vicious examination scenes is that they appear to promote viewers' belief in them.

The Papke (Papke, supra at 1206) article argues that the Kramer film and I Am Sam are both highly unrealistic in a number of ways. In an actual court setting, there would be allowances for Sam's evidence to be admitted to court and given proper weight. S. 15 of the Charter states that "[e]very individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on …mental or physical disability" (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, c. 15). Exactly how that would be accomplished is unknown. However, the court would have to take a creative approach in evaluating and gathering evidence and in eliminating bias. Mental disability is a ground of discrimination that the court is directed to take notice of and reduce. It is impossible to eliminate all discrimination in law, as law always discriminates against someone, but it is possible to minimize it.

Lucy's persistence in seeing her father was a major contribution to Sam's continued contact with his daughter. Papke writes that in Kramer vs. Kramer, when the two parents "decide what to do about their son …, and make peace between themselves, they do so despite the law, and in part to spite the law"(Papke, supra at 1207). I am Sam does the same, suggesting that there would have been a different outcome had Sam not lived so close, or her foster parents not been so cooperative and compassionate. The film implied that only due to these extraordinary efforts could Sam and the foster family work as a unit to raise the child. The outcome requires the viewer to consider that the court system could never have come up with such a mutually acceptable solution.

In Alberta, "[t]he goal of foster care is to return the child to his or her own family as soon as possible" ("About Foster Care" online: Alberta Children's Services (date accessed: 9 March 2003)). As well, it "describes the unique situation of providing temporary family-based care to a child who cannot remain in their own home due to child protection concerns or exceptional special needs" (Ibid). The courts and legal system seek, where possible, to maintain family ties.

I Am Sam is a heartwarming film, where love triumphs over tyranny. However, the film does a disservice to the viewing public in propagating myths about the legal system. The viewer is asked to adopt the point of view of a disabled man, combating a legal system where competence is equated with normal mental development. However, as Papke comments that Kramer vs. Kramer "proposes a modern variety of gender peace" (Papke, supra at 1208), so I Am Sam proposes a modern variety of peace between disabled persons, the legal system, and society.

Posted July 22, 2003

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

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views