Defending Truth

Courtroom Dramas from Inherit the Wind to DENIAL

Written by Peter Bowen

At the heart of Mick Jackson’s DENIAL is a riveting trial in which historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) must defend herself against a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving in 1996. Represented by an extraordinary legal team, headed up by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt refuses to back down in a case whose stakes are nothing less than the integrity of historical truth. In writing the screenplay, David Hare also felt compelled to capture the exact details of the trial. “I had to be historically accurate myself, so that enemies of the film, the people who agree with David Irving, couldn’t accuse me of distorting the record,” recounts Hare. In fact, every line spoken in the courtroom is taken verbatim from the actual trial transcript. The result is a thrilling courtroom drama that, in putting history on trial, captures both the facts of that case and the tenor of our own times. “We live in an age of unreason and lies, an age of violent outrages and all kinds of assaults on the truth,” explains Jackson. DENIAL joins a host of other powerful trial films that use the courtroom drama to explore, as well as adjudicate, pressing social and political issues. Below, we look at five other films whose stories resonate long after the last gavel pound.


Inherit the Wind | Science on Trial

When Stanley Kramer chose to adapt Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s play Inherit the Wind to the screen in 1960, he recognized more than evolution was on trial in the courtroom drama that recreated the 1925 Scopes Monkey case. When the play first appeared on Broadway in 1955, many viewed it as a not-so veiled jab at McCarthyism. Lawrence acknowledges, “It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.” In bringing the story to the screen, Kramer laid out an astonishingly high $200,000 for the film rights. His widow, Karen Kramer, suggests to the Los Angeles Times that Kramer, who broke ranks by signing up banned writers for his 1958 The Defiant Ones, used the film “to take another shot at the blacklist.” In addition to directing a film about free speech, Kramer hired blacklisted screenwriter Nedrick Young, which brought forth the wrath of the American Legion, accusing him of hiring “known communists.” Kramer did hire gifted actors Spencer Tracy and Fredric March to play Henry Drumond and Matthew Harrison Brady, obvious stand-ins for Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. While the film and play fictionalized the names and places, it generally kept to the facts of what happened during the Scopes trial. In 1925, John T. Scopes was arrested in Dayton, TN, for violating the state’s Butler Act, a law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. In truth, Scopes, a high school football coach and occasional substitute teacher, agreed to set himself up for arrest so that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) could have a test case. Headlined as the “Trial of the Century,” the case pitted two great, if very different, legal giants against each other. For the defense was Darrow, who had defended child murderers Leopold and Loeb the year before in what was also referred to as the “Trial of the Century.” Defending the values of the Bible Belt was three-time Presidential populist candidate Bryan. In the film, Tracy and March face off in a mesmerizing legal duel in which each eloquently argues for their truth––one based in reason and science, the other in religion and state’s rights. As Roger Ebert notes, “Both Tracy and March vent an anger and passion through their characters that ventures beyond acting into holy zeal.” The film went on to receive four Academy Award nominations (including Spencer Tracy for Best Actor). While the anger over McCarthyism that brought about the story has died out, the question of evolution continues to haunt the drama. During the release of the film, United Artists had to curtail their rollout when they confronted stiff opposition from theaters in Middle America which objected to its secular and scientific point of view. Years later, Kramer recounts in Movies Were Always Magic, “There’s still reaction on Inherit the Wind. I listen to the radio quite often and recently I heard this Christian station talking about ‘Stanley Kramer and how he dared to make the movie Inherit the Wind about Darwinism,’ I called up the station and said, ‘Look, you missed the point of the film, which is about freedom of speech’.”


Judgment at Nuremberg | The World Court

The film, Judgment of Nuremberg, began in 1957 when writer Abby Mann met Abraham Pomerantz, one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials, at a dinner party in New York City. While everyone was aware of the first trials in 1946 in which the International Military Tribunal (IMT) prosecuted 24 of most notorious Nazi leaders, few paid much attention to later Judges Trials, in which the justice officials who implemented Nazi laws were brought to task. Through Pomerantz, Mann was put in touch with Teleford Taylor, the head prosecutor at Nuremberg, who observed that, because the judges should have formed a political conscience before Hitler came to power, “they most of all should have valued justice.” For his script, Mann fictionalized the trials. While he changed the names, he kept many of the details of actual atrocities to give his drama historical weight. In 1959, George Roy Hill directed Mann’s script as an episode of CBS’s TV showcase Playhouse 90. Katherine Hepburn, who was working with Mann on another project, got a copy of the script to Spencer Tracy, who excitedly promised to star in a film adaptation and get his colleague, Stanley Kramer, to direct it. In the film, Dan Haywood (Tracy) heads up the three-judge panel that explores the German psyche by putting on trial, not just the judges, but the various excuses they give for twisting justice to fit their Nazi ideology. For many political writers at the time, Judgment at Nuremberg was not just about dredging up the horrors of the past. Indeed, Mann’s exploration of moral responsibility is open-ended enough to indict both those individuals accused of actual war crimes and those societies who might commit such transgressions in the near future. In Commentary, Jason Epstein suggests that the film addresses “the idea that not Germany itself but our civilization as a whole was represented by the Nazi episode, and that the Cold War is a further, more virulent, symptom of the same disorder.” In transforming the television drama into a major motion picture, United Artists filled the courtroom with an all-star cast, including Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, and Richard Widmark. Maximilian Schell reprised the role of the German defense attorney he’d played in the original Playhouse 90 episode. A few critics have suggested that Kramer cast some actors, not just for their talent, but for their backstories as well. From Dietrich strolling to the strains of “Lili Marlene,” a song she made famous during the war, to Garland’s and Clift’s recent struggles with substance abuse adding a very real a sense of physical fragility to their war-weary characters, the film is full of culturally rich performances. Judgment at Nuremberg received 11 Academy Award nominations, including nods to Clift (Best Supporting Actor), Garland (Best Supporting Actress), Tracy (Best Actor), and Kramer (Best Director). Both Schell (Best Actor) and Mann (Best Adapted Screenplay) won.


Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird | Defender of the Innocent

In 1961, Producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan, who had teamed up to acquire the film rights to Harper Lee’s best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird, got the encouragement they were hoping for. The author’s agent, Annie Laurie William, wrote them to say, “if you can find the right Atticus and exactly the right children, especially the little girl to play Scout, we will feel confident that you can produce the kind of picture you promised Harper Lee.” While Pakula was considering several actors for the “right Atticus,” his immediate concern was finding the right Maycomb, the fictional town in which the 1933 story takes place. After finding that Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama was too modern for their period adaption, the filmmakers recreated the story’s mythic Southern small town, including its iconic courthouse, on a studio back lot. Lee remarked that it “looked so real that I wanted to sit down in a rocking chair and fan myself.” While Gregory Peck is now seen as the perfect Atticus, he was not Universal Studio’s first choice. Besides Rock Hudson, the studio’s top box-office pull, a number of other actors, from Spencer Tracy to James Stewart, were also offered the part. Lee was originally skeptical that Peck could convey the spirit of her beloved father, the inspiration for the heroic southern attorney. But years later she would praise Peck with the observation “Atticus Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself.” Set in 1932, the 1962 film recounts several years in the life of six-year-old Scout Finch (Mary Badham), most significantly being the trial in which her dad, Atticus (Peck), defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of rape. Partially autobiographical, partially alluding to historic cases, like the 1931 Scottsboro Boys cases, in which nine African-American youths were falsely accused of raping two white teenagers, To Kill a Mockingbird manages simultaneously to evoke a time long ago and to speak to the racial tensions that filled the headlines at its time. For many, the power of the film is summed up less in the issues it brings to trial than in the character of the attorney, Atticus Finch, who makes the justice system feel familiar and real. In 2008, the Alabama State Bar made Harper Lee an honorary member because “the character of Atticus Finch has become the personification of the exemplary lawyer in serving the legal needs of the poor and those no one else would represent.” For the film, honors came more immediately. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), and won for Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote), and Best Art Direction.


The Accused | Making the Public Responsible

On March 6, 1983, 21-year-old Cheryl Araujo stopped at Big Dan’s tavern in New Bedford, MA, to buy cigarettes after the store she normally frequented was closed. What followed would be a crime that shocked the nation and became the subject for Jonathan Kaplan’s searing 1988 courtroom drama, The Accused. According to Araujo, six men raped her as others watched on, some even cheering. No one intervened to stop the attack. When the six defendants came to trial a year later, the Big Dan’s rape case, as it was quickly named in the news, became a flashpoint for the way rape was prosecuted in America. From the defense blaming Araujo as promiscuous to the news media broadcasting her identity, an act that resulted in Araujo being harassed and even threatened, the trial inadvertently revealed the sad way the justice system often traumatizes rape victims a second time. Journalist Tom Topor transformed the details of the story into a trial film that examines, not just the aggressors, but also those who did nothing to stop the rape. In The Accused,Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) heads to local dive, The Mill, after a fight with her boyfriend. There she is gang-raped on a pinball machine as locals and college students crowd around. Unwilling to use Tobias, who was drunk and stoned at the time of the attack, as a witness, A.D.A. Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) plea-bargains the defendants down to lesser sentences. Furious that her assailants received so little time, Tobias pushes Murphy, who decides to go after the bystanders for criminal solicitation. Like the case that inspired it, the film brought the issue of rape into the national conversation. McGillis published an account of her own rape in People explaining, “A lot of people will see The Accused and think it's just a movie, but to any victim it is much more. I want people to understand that this kind of crime happens in real life. It happened to me.” In The Accused, the courtroom not only tries the rape case, but replicates the political conditions that makes such crimes possible. As film scholar Carol Clover points out, “Its dramatic tension lies as much in whether one female lawyer can buck a male system set in its ways and a male law structurally biased against victims of rape.” Despite its tough content, the film proved to be a critical and commercial success, with Jodie Foster going on to win Best Actress Academy Award for her performance.


Philadelphia | Witness to its Time

In 1988, when one of filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s closest friends, the illustrator Juan Suárez Botas, was diagnosed with HIV, he phoned up screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who recounts to NewNowNext that Demme told him, “The only thing I know how to do about things like this is to make a movie…would you like to make a movie with me about AIDS?” In 1990, after a year of trying out various storylines, Nyswaner hit upon casting the story as a civil rights trial, a dramatic vehicle that could transform an otherwise complex and controversial subject into a traditional American tale of justice. While several independent films, like Longtime Companion and Parting Glances, had tackled the subject, Philadelphia was to be the first Hollywood production. According to Nyswaner, however, it wasn’t as hard a sell as it seemed. “Everyone's lives had been so affected by AIDS that everyone felt a personal need to try to do something,” he told the San Francisco Bay Times. “When a story came along that appealed to studio executives as being entertaining and having the possibility to bring in a large audience, then they reacted, I think, mostly with relief." Indeed, as Roger Ebert would write in his glowing review, “The reassuring rhythms of the courtroom drama, I imagine, are what made this material palatable to the executives in charge of signing the checks.” While the filmmaker’s first choice, Daniel Day Lewis, turned down the role, Tom Hanks was enthusiastic about stepping into the part of Andrew Beckett, a top-drawer Philadelphia lawyer who is forced out of the closet––and out of a job––when his firm discovers he has AIDS. In suing his law film for discrimination, he ends up hiring a homophobic personal injury lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), to represent him. The star-studded cast included Antonio Banderas, Jason Robards, and Joanne Woodward, as well as a large contingent of people with AIDS. While setting the story as a courtroom drama made for great entertainment, it also unfortunately provided the filmmakers a legal drama all their own when they were sued by the family of attorney Geoffrey Bowers. In 1987, Bowers had filed a complaint with the NY State Division of Human Rights, claiming he was fired after his firm, Baker & McKenzie, noticed HIV-related lesions on his face. Bowers died in 1987, but his family saw the case through to the end. While Philadelphia was not based on the Bowers case, there were too many similarities for the studio not to settle with the family out of court. Despite such legal setbacks, Philadelphia was a commercial and generally critical success. Although some critics felt it pulled punches in its representation of AIDS and gay sexuality, they nevertheless praised its ability to connect emotionally. “Philadelphia is far from perfect, but it would be hard to imagine the person who could walk away from it unmoved,” writes Newsweek’s David Ansen. Philadelphia was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Song (Bruce Springsteen for “Streets of Philadelphia”). In a sad endnote, 43 of the 53 people with AIDS cast in the film were dead within a few years of the film’s release.

discover more in the bleecker street blog

bleecker blog