The National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights is launching the Culture Corner, a series of blog posts that, together, are intended as a forum for discussion of how pop culture treats issues of civil rights, social justice and the courts. Television, movie, theater and musical portrayals inform our understanding of these issues on a daily basis. Are these depictions accurate? Fair? Misleading? We welcome your thoughts. Please join in the discussion on the NCRCR blog.
Howl in the Movie Theater...and the Courtroom?
by Marianne Engelman Lado
I sat down last Friday night to watch Howl, the new movie starring James Franco (written and directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman). It's about the poet Allen Ginsberg, his poem Howl, the essence of poetry and rhythm, and the emergence of a cultural divide in the country, a schism that continues to have consequences for us today. Ginsberg's words speak volumes about finding ways to be true to ourselves, as well as his own struggle to allow himself the space to express who he was in a world that degraded being gay. It's also about the courts and the way in which some of the most controversial issues in American society wind up in court.
The film follows a number of parallel tracks. The first is a nightclub scene in which Ginsberg recites the poem Howl before a rapt audience. As he speaks, the visuals move from the nightclub to artistic and hallucinatory images. These scenes are interspersed with taped interviews with Ginsberg, during which he shares thoughts about his life and his perspectives on the Beat Generation and his poetry. And finally, there is the coutroom drama, based on a real-life obscenity trial before Judge Clayton Horn, in which experts testified about whether the poem had literary merit. (There's also a book on the case called Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression.)
It's striking, though, how many movies use the courtroom as a plot device, a means to play out drama. A good number of movies use court cases as a central organizing principle for the plot: there's a case investigation, the gathering of evidence, the two sides clashing, and a decision by a judge or jury. A few come to mind: Erin Brockovich with Julia Roberts, The Verdict with Paul Newman, A Few Good Men with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore, and there are scores of others. No doubt, litigation provides drama. There are adversaries, the buildup of evidence, and then resolution, when the judge or jury hands down a decision. (Never mind, though, that the vast majority of cases are settled before there's ever a trial.)
The truth is, though, that lots of important issues do get decided in court. Courts provide a non-violent way of resolving controversial questions. If we're fighting over a contract and we can't resolve the issue, we can go to court. Or if some people in society don't like poetry they think is obscene, they hopefully won't be as tempted to lash out at the author or publisher. They can go to court.
The movie reminded me of how many tough issues do wind up playing out in the courthouse: whether towns, cities and states can pass gun control laws, the future of the recent health care law, and the legality of rendition, to name a few. In turn, maybe because the courts play such a key role in resolving disputes in our society, the courts wind up in our movies.
The National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights invites you to share your thoughts about how the legal system is portrayed in the movies. Send us your movie review. This space will be used to start a conversation about how the movies shape ideas about the courts and, ultimately, about our rights.
by Juanne Renee Harris
Let me start by saying that I really wanted to like the new NBC legal drama Outlaw starring Jimmy Smits. I wanted to like it because Jimmy Smits is a fine actor and one my personal favorites. More importantly, however, I wanted to like Outlaw because of the potential I saw for this drama to provide useful commentary and educate TV viewers about some of the important issues being played out in the federal courts that affect our daily lives.
I was willing to overlook the arguably improbable opening premise that someone would step down from a job that probably represents the ultimate brass ring in a legal career. Really, when was the last time you heard of a Supreme Court Justice resigning? I guess, though, if Chief Justice Roberts had amassed over $200,000 in gambling debts he might be tempted to trade in his yearly salary of $213,900 for a more lucrative career as a private defense attorney. And, I already know better than to get upset about the myriad of totally unrealistic depictions of how attorneys prepare for cases and conduct themselves in courtrooms. I’ve grown used to this from the endless other legal dramas on TV and long ago decided to chalk my impatience with these small technicalities up to the fact that, as a practicing attorney, I’m a stickler for detail. And besides, all that “legal stuff” would never make for good TV.
But I digress. For those of you who have not seen the show here’s a short description: Jimmy Smits plays Supreme Court Justice Cyrus Garza, a Bush appointee who is arguably the most conservative judge on the United States Supreme Court. After his father dies in a car crash, which he survives, Justice Garza undergoes a crisis of conscience and decides that he has been following the wrong path and can do more good as an everyday lawyer than he can as part of the most powerful legal institution in our democracy. Or maybe it’s because he’s a womanizer with a gambling habit that has landed him over $200,000 in debt? I’m still not sure. Anyway, Garza resigns from the Court in dramatic fashion and coerces an ex-lover into bringing him on as a partner in her law firm. After gathering a team consisting of his two law clerks (an idealistic young woman he hired because of her looks – his words – who also happens to be in love with him and an ambitious conservative Harvard Law graduate who seems to be hanging around because he can’t get a job anywhere else. – Really, an unemployable Supreme Court clerk?), a sexy, intelligent and very sarcastic private investigator who constantly baits the two clerks, and his childhood best friend (an African-American attorney who is as liberal as they come), Garza hits the road as a renegade defense attorney fighting the good fight for the little guy.
So – this is where I was hoping that the show’s writers would take the opportunity to use the show as a teaching moment and this is where my disappointment began. The first episode suggests that Garza’s crisis of conscience will lead him to embrace his father’s liberal legacy when he decides to defend a death row inmate he believes to be innocent. Of course he wins, but, the episode is a rehash of other similar plot lines I’ve seen in previous legal dramas and there’s nothing new to learn here. It seems that the only thing this episode actually did accomplish was to inflame conservatives who view the show as a medium for liberals to push their progressive agenda while making conservatives look bad.
I had higher hopes for the second episode which touched on the controversy surrounding Arizona’s anti-immigrant law. The episode involves a white police officer accused of assault and racial-profiling after the officer, in accordance with a local anti-immigration law, confronts a Latino man he believes to be undocumented and winds up shooting the “suspect.” In an unexpected move, given his newfound liberal ideals, Garza returns to his conservative roots and chooses to defend the police officer because he’s “spent [his] whole career defending states’ rights.” As it turns out, the man is not undocumented, but, instead of using this episode as a way to illustrate the potential dangers and injustices that can result from these types of laws, the producers decide to unmask the Latino man as a criminal who the police officer was justified in shooting. So, not only was this a missed teaching moment, but, the ultimate message reinforces the conservative agenda that Latino, specifically Mexican, immigrants are typically undocumented individuals or criminals (usually both) who have no place in our society. Not what I was hoping for from this show.
Outlaw’s executive producer David Kissinger said Latina Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor inspired him: “People were writing about her life and the dues she had to pay to get to that point, so it struck me that someone who worked that hard and achieved that incredible position, what would it take for that person to give it all up and what would they give it all up for?” Well, I’m not sure what might inspire Justice Sotomayor to step down from the bench, but, I’m certain it’s not this.
Over the next weeks the show has the opportunity to look at other civil rights and social justice issues being examined by the federal courts. Hopefully, the writers will consider using these opportunities to highlight how these issues can affect the lives of everyday citizens and how what happens in the courts can impact our daily lives.
The National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights focuses on the impact of court rulings on our communities, our opportunities and our rights and we would love to hear your thoughts about how the legal system is portrayed on Outlaw and other television shows.
I still think this show has the potential to be used for the greater good without sacrificing its entertainment value. But, they better do it soon. Rumor has it that production on Outlaw has been stopped and producers are waiting to see if rating increase before they film any additional episodes.
Civil Rights and Music
by Tricia Perry
"Jazz speaks for life," Martin Luther King Jr. said. "The blues tell the story of life's difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music." Whether linked to jazz, soul or funk, sung by Nina Simone or Sam Cooke, the Civil Rights movement has a rich history of associations with music. And there was a purpose in this connection to culture: It has been said that, “Music is often a unifying element in a political movement, succinctly and emphatically reminding people of what they are fighting for, while providing inspiration and hope.”
Decades later, it isn’t clear that there is any particular genre or artist that we can label as “civil rights music.” In 2010 the very notion of civil rights is a much broader concept, almost an umbrella term for contemporary issues such as the rights of immigrants and LGBT people. From a classic racial justice perspective, there are certainly ties to be drawn between civil rights and the hip hop genre; some claim hip hop has replaced the civil rights movement itself while others characterize the two movements as separate and conflicting.
In any event, the election and inauguration of our nation’s first black president led to a renaissance in music geared toward a common progressive vision. The Yes We Can video is a great example of how music and other media can be harnessed for purposes of political change. Once in office, the Obamas even hosted a concert in celebration of music from the civil rights movement.
What are your thoughts on the civil rights music of 2010?
(Photo by Dyroza.)