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Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Sunderland
Copyright © Chris Ashford 2005
First Published in the Web Journal of Current Legal Issues
September 2005 sees the launch of a new extra curricular activity at the University of Sunderland. The new ‘Law on Film’ group seeks to utilise film in order to better understand the law in its socio-legal context. This article seeks to explore the rationale behind this and other extra-curricular groups and how it will operate over the coming academic year.
This article explores a new extra curricular activity introduced at the University of Sunderland in September 2005. The Law on Film Group is a staff led and student centred activity for all law students that seeks to explore various socio-legal issues that emerge from films and in doing so seeks to broaden student’s awareness of the wider context in which law operates.
The idea for the group was inspired by the students themselves. During the course of the previous academic year I had used occasional short excerpts from film and television to illustrate points or to promote debate whether it be the switching on of the military device ‘Skynet’ in Terminator 3 to discuss viruses and computer control in Cyber Law or the use of Superman III to explain ‘Salami Fraud’. My realisation of the power of film as a pedagogical tool came in the teaching of Human Rights Law, a first year core module on the LLB at the University of Sunderland. We had been discussing the topic of sexuality, rights and control through the specific example of ‘cottaging’. This is a sexual practice where men meet in public lavatories to engage in sexual acts. Students were baffled as to why it was that men who choose to have sex with other men in public places often chose not to classify themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ and found it difficult to divide ‘acts’ from defining an individual’s identity. For them an individual engaging in homosexual behaviour defined that individual as homosexual.
Despite my best attempts to explain the subtleties of this issue, student clarity was finally achieved not by students analysing vast amounts of academic literature nor after lengthy explanations from myself but from a few minutes from an HBO mini series produced for television and based on two internationally successful plays by Tony Kushner. ‘Angels in America’ combines philosophy, religion, politics and drama; set in a 1985 Reagan America in which AIDS is beginning to take its terrible grip upon the world. One character, Roy Cohn, played by the ultra masculine heterosexual Al Pacino is a successful lawyer with extensive links to the Republican regime. In a powerful scene in which Roy Cohn is told by his doctor he has AIDS, the concept of sexuality and identity is explored:
“Roy Cohn: AIDS. Homosexual. Gay.
Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who a person sleeps with,
but they don't tell you that.
Roy Cohn: No. Like all labels they tell you one thing, and one thing only: Where does an individual so identified fit into the food chain, the pecking order? Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will come to the phone when I call, who owes me favours. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, a homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men, but really this is wrong. A homosexual is somebody who, in 15 years of trying cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through the city council. A homosexual is somebody who knows nobody and who nobody knows. Who has zero clout. Does this sound like me Henry?”
The short excerpt allowed students to finally understand the issues with students commenting at the end of the lecture that they wished I had shown the clip earlier as it made a difficult concept straightforward in a way that previous academic explanations had failed to. From seminar discussion that followed the students had clearly understood the issues I had been trying to explain and their implications for law and society. This approach also proved to be a success for HBO sales, with six students telling me they rushed out and ordered the DVD from Amazon after the lecture. In the weeks that followed students were asking about ‘Moral Majority’, ‘Stonewall’ and a range of sexuality issues. They were also asking about American politics and similarities between the Republican Reagan government of the 1980s and the Republican George W. Bush government of today. Just a few minutes of film had fired their imaginations (see also Johnson, 1987). They were now seeking out academic material and seeking to deepen their own knowledge.
The underlying aim behind the group is to inspire, motivate and inform students of issues and themes that they may not have already studied or to examine issues they have studied at a deeper level. Though perhaps more common in the United States (Mayer, 1992, Stone, 1999) the study of film in a legal context so as to understand and appreciate the law in a wider socio-legal context remains relatively uncommon with most texts and discussion focussing on lawyer or courtroom centred films. Indeed, the study of law and film remains a relatively new phenomenon. Its use in the undergraduate curriculum continues to be the exception rather than the rule with the study of law and popular culture being slow to develop (Greenfield, Osborn and Robson, 2001, p2). Furthermore, there remains no consensus as to what should be considered as forming part of ‘law and film’ (Machura and Robson, 2001).
Though the United States have been ahead of the UK in recognising the usefulness of this material, such study was nonetheless met with scepticism at first (Stone, 1999). Even so, the aims and rationale that have been identified as underpinning legal pedagogy are consistent with the aims behind Law on Film. Indeed, for law teachers the use of film can be a tremendous aid to their own teaching with Stone noting that “somehow as I reach the end of my teaching career I have found an approach that empowers students to explore ideas that are important to them” (Stone, 1999). Students choose to watch films, yet it can often be a real challenge to inspire and encourage students to choose to read scholarly articles or worthy tombs of academic text. As we move towards an ever greater system of ‘mass Higher Education’ there are a greater number of students entering the system for whom sitting down and reading scholarly articles is a skill that requires greater time and support to develop (See for example Adler-Kassner, 1999) and can be aided by embracing films which students may find it easier to engage as they often reflect their culture and social norms.
This activity can also support a liberal pedagogical philosophy (see for example Bradney, 1999) with Greenfield, Osborn and Robson (2001, p 3) pointing to the Ormrod Report suggesting that the law should be seen within its ‘broader socio-legal context’. In addition, the recent work of Cownie (2004, p 58) suggests that an ever increasing number of legal academics consider themselves socio-legal. Indeed, when Cownie considered law teachers ‘philosophy of teaching’. Cownie discovered in her study of English legal academics that the objective singled out for particular mention by over half of the people interviewed was ‘getting students to think’:
“I’m probably trying to get them to think. That’s the main thing I’m trying to do. I’m trying to get them to be able to develop the thinking processes which are necessary to enable them to approach any material”. (Senior Lecturer, early career, male, old university) (Cownie, 2004, p76)
“First of all covey basic ideas, covey basic knowledge. Try to get them to actually think for themselves, to criticise and evaluate and make judgments about what they read, and that’s a very difficult thing, to get them to say ‘Well, I don’t like this, I don’t like what he’s done there…So it’s literally to try and get them to criticise other ideas and other views – and criticise my views…So it’s trying to take them to a higher plane in thought”. (Lecturer, early career, female, new university) (Cownie, 2004, p76)
This too is an underlying aim behind Law on Film. Whether it is a film starring Al Pacino or a journal article about Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights students must process and evaluate information, they must develop the confidence to think on their own, and recognise that there is often no single correct answer. In this way, Law on Film further develops those skills that we already seek to develop across the law programme.
Greenfield and Osborn (2001, p 9) in writing about the University of Westminster undergraduate ‘Film and the Law’ module set out to address the skills of viewing, listening, teamwork, presentation and research. Law on Film as an extra-curricular activity can equally achieve these aims. Greenfield and Osborn (1995) set out five specific aims behind their module:
Those five aims are broadly reflective too of the aims behind Law on Film at Sunderland together with the broad aim of achieving critical thought amongst students. In addition, the programme also has at its core a notion of ‘justice education’. Throughout the programme of films it is anticipated and hoped that students will continue to question their own notions of justice with respect to all areas whether it be in relation to family law, international law or human rights to mention but three.
The Law on Film programme for the 2005/06 academic year draws upon fifty years of cinema. There are of course films that appear to link directly into a particular module yet often can be genuinely cross curricular and as such work well in an extra curricular group.
From television series as diverse as ‘Star Trek’ (Joseph and Carton, 1992, Schraf and Robert, 1994, Peltz, 2003), ‘Ally McBeal’ (Joseph, 2003) ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Bradney, 2003) and ‘Angel’ (Bradney, 2005) through to films such as ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (Papke, 1996) and ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (Nichols, 1996) legal scholars are beginning to explore law and its relationship with law. Like many of them, I too do not hold myself out to be a media expert but rather a lawyer seeking to understand the world we live in through film. However, as with all law teachers in this position I draw upon my own socio-legal expertise, and I will be aided by other colleagues as the programme progresses according to their interests and individual expertise.
The first film in the 2005 programme is ‘Devil’s Advocate’ (1997). The film tells the story of Kevin Lomax, a criminal lawyer who has never lost a case who is recruited by a ruthless and corrupt New York law firm. As the film evolves Lomax discovers his boss in the Devil himself and makes a troubling person discovery. Through the metaphor of good verses evil we explore the nature of the legal profession and its perception by society.
The film ‘Philadelphia’ (1993) is perhaps an equally obvious candidate for inclusion. ‘Philadelphia’ is the story of a successful lawyer, Andrew Becket who must fight against being unlawfully fired from his job with a leading Philadelphia law firm after they discover he has AIDS. In the unfolding legal and social drama that unfolds we witness his advocate, Joe Miller face up to his own prejudices and though his struggle the audience is forced to consider and reflect upon its own views as we see the decline in Andrew Beckets health. This is highlighted in the following courtroom exert when Miller confronts the court with the issue of sexuality as has had to himself:
“Miller: Are you a homosexual?
Miller: Are you a homosexual? Answer the question. Are you a homo? Are you a faggot? You know, a punk, a queen, pillow-biter, fairy, booty-snatcher, rump-roaster? Are you gay?
Defence: Objection! Where did this come from? Suddenly counsel's attacking his own witness? Mr. Collins' sexual orientation has nothing to do with this case!
Judge: Please have a seat, Ms. Conine. Would you approach the bench, Mr. Miller? Would you kindly share with me exactly what's going on inside your head? Because at this moment I don't have a clue.
Miller: Your Honour, everybody in this courtroom is thinking about sexual orientation, you know, sexual preference, whatever you want to call it. Who does what to whom and how they do it. I mean, they're looking at Andrew Beckett, they're thinking about it. They're looking at Mr. Wheeler, Ms. Conine, even you, your Honour. They're wondering about it. Trust me, I know that they are looking at me and thinking about it. So let's just get it out in the open, let's get it out of the closet. Because this case is not just about AIDS, is it? So let's talk about what this case is really all about, the general public's hatred, our loathing, our fear of homosexuals, and how that climate of hatred and fear translated into the firing of this particular homosexual, my client, Andrew Beckett.
Judge: Please have a seat, Mr. Miller. Very good. In this courtroom, Mr. Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, colour, religion and sexual orientation.
Miller: With all due respect, your Honour, we don't live in this courtroom, though, do we?”
Through these exchanges we see the adversarial system operate and we also see it emphasised that the jury will witness two versions of events reminiscent of an ancient drama (Manchura and Ulbrich, 2001). Though we are using once again an American film the issues the film raises and considers are just as vital for an appreciation of the legal construction of sexuality within the English legal system together with once again considering the representation of the legal profession and the courtroom on film.
The third film in the programme is ‘Erin Brockovich’ (2000). This film cast Julia Roberts as an unemployed single mother who after a turn of bizarre events finds herself working for a personal injury law firm. Brockovich begins to investigate a real estate case that leads to her discovery of a company that has illegally dumped toxic waste, poisoning the local community. Based on a true story Brockovich dismissed as ‘trailer trash’ confronts the company in the following exert:
“Ms. Sanchez: Let's be honest here.
$20 million dollars is more money then these people have ever dreamed of.
Erin Brockovich: Oh see, now that
pisses me off. First of all, since the demur we have more than 400 plaintiffs
and...let's be honest, we all know there are more out there. They may not
be the most sophisticated people but they do know how to divide and $20 million
isn't shit when you split it between them. Second of all, these people don't
dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim
in a pool without worrying that they'll have to have a hysterectomy at the
age of twenty. Like Rosa Diaz, a client of ours. Or have their spine deteriorate,
like Stan Blume, another client of ours. So before you come back here with
another lame ass offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine
is worth Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your
uterus Ms. Sanchez. Then you take out your calculator and you multiply that
number by a hundred. Anything less than that is a waste of our time.
[Ms. Sanchez picks up a glass
Erin Brockovich: By the way, we
had that water brought in especially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley.
Ms. Sanchez: I think this meeting
Ed Masry: Damn right it is.”
Brockovich’s endeavours result in one of the biggest class action lawsuits in American history against a multi-billion dollar corporation. Again American based, the film nonetheless allows students to appreciate the operation of Environmental law in a real life context. It also allows issues of globalisation and morality to be considered alongside a practical analysis of an American law suit, albeit simplified by Hollywood.
The next planned film is not one that might traditionally be viewed as ‘Law on Film’ yet Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ (2004) documentary raises a series of important issues of governance and again morality. Produced and released in the run up to the 2004 United States Presidential Election the film dissects the Bush administration:
“Moore: He couldn't get his judges appointed. He had trouble getting his legislation passed, and he lost Republican control of the Senate. His approval ratings in the polls began to sink. He was already beginning to look like a lame duck president. With everything going wrong, he did what any of us would do. He went... on vacation.
The film also takes the opportunity to explore wider socio-legal policy as highlighted in the statement made by a young African American in Moore's former home town of Michigan, once a great industrial powerhouse of America and now in the throws of chronic unemployment and social problems:
“And I was watchin' TV one day, 'n they're show'n like some of the buildings and areas that had been hit by bombs and things like that, and while I watchin' I got to thinkin' li', "There's parts of Flint that look li' that, and we ain't been in a war."
Through its discussion of the Patriot Act together with the attitudes of the American Government the film explores notions of liberty, democracy and governance together with offering a sometimes alarming insight into the operation and administration of American governance.
The fourth film in the programme continues the examination of social issues that are associated with the law. ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (1979) tells of the personal heartache that can surround custody battles and juxtaposes legal process against personal struggle and sorrow as seen in the fathers relationship with his son, Billy who is at the centre of the custody dispute:
“Billy Kramer: When's mommy coming
Ted Kramer: I dont know, Billy. Soon.
Billy Kramer: How soon?
Ted Kramer: Soon.
Billy Kramer: Will she pick me up after school?
Ted Kramer: Probably. And if she doesn't I will.
Billy Kramer: What if you forget?
Ted Kramer: I won't forget.
Billy Kramer: What if you get run over by a truck and get killed?
Ted Kramer: Then Mommy will pick you up.”
Through this film we once again consider courtroom interaction but also the impact that divorce and separation can have on families and, crucially from a Family Law perspective, children. The film also considers notions of gender and gender representation within the law (Papke, 1996).
For the final planned film in the 2005/06 programme we turn to a cinematic classic. ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (1957) is essentially a courthouse drama that seeks to explore patterns of courtroom justice and the operation of the rule of law (Silbey, 2001). Fonda is cast as the one character who must exercise solitary courage in persuading the other juries of the defendants innocence (Rafter, 2001) during jury deliberations on a case concerning the murder trial of an 18 year old Latino boy accused of murdering his own father. As Greenfield (2001) has noted the film suggests that ‘legal process requires the intervention of good men’ in order to ensure its adequate operation and adherence to Liberal values and as we witness others question their prejudices and assumptions we to, as viewers must question our own.
Of course there are many films that have not made it into this year’s programme but which I hope to include in future programmes. Indeed, once I sat down to consider the content for the programme and discussed it with colleagues we could think of enough films to ensure the group has an almost inexhaustible number of films and other visual material to draw upon. Again there remain other classic films such as ‘Inherit the Wind’ (1960), ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ (1961) and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962) through to the modern Hollywood films such as ‘Amistad’ (1997), ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) and ‘Hannibal’ (2001). There is equally scope for the unusual that may not instantly inspire one to think of ‘law and film’ such as ‘24 Hour Party People’ (2002) which traces the Manchester Dance Scene that surrounded Factory Records and the legendary Hacienda Club. The film allows students to place the Criminal Justice and Public order Act 1994 and the Acid House crackdown led by James Anderton in a real socio-legal setting or ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968 and 2001) which considers the practical operation of justice and liberty.
The University of Sunderland is a widening participation institution. When it comes to the operation of extra-curricular activities this can create a number of additional challenges. In September 2004, we established a Mooting and Debating group within the law team. The launch of the group was met with enthusiasm from students and staff alike and we now have a successful group. Well over a hundred people attended the first session, representing over a third of the students in the law department yet by the second session that figure had halved. Though some invariably did not attend other sessions as they felt it simply wasn’t for them, others found they were unable to attend early evenings. After discussing with students the reasons for non attendance it became apparent that often students faced part time work commitments that prevented them from attending or due to living at home it was inconvenient to wait around from a seminar in the morning until the early evening for a moot and even more so where it meant a student travelling in especially. This had not been apparent in the first week when students found they were in more often and when many had not undertaken work commitments.
This experience meant that we have deliberately set out to time a slot for Law on Film that is during the day and does not clash with core lectures. Only time will tell how successful this strategy will be. This of course is tremendously difficult as it is during the daytime that the pressure on rooms is the most acute. The challenge will remain in persuading students to give up potential earning time for learning time.
The Law on Film sessions themselves are divided into two main elements. The first is the showing of the film and second is a discussion. Students who watch the film are not forced to take part in the discussion that follows though it is hoped that as students self confidence and comfort levels grow they will feel able to take part in a discussion.
Students will be provided with a materials booklet to accompany the programme with background information documents for the films, for instance details of the American jury system so that students are able to have a greater understanding of Twelve Angry Men and quotes from all the films are included so students are able to consider some of the quotes without the pressure of making notes during the film.
Use will also be made of WebCT as with Mooting and Debating so as to support the group. Links to trailers and additional information will be provided so students can gain an insight into the film before they go and are better able to make an informed choice about attending the group. One of the key elements though will be the use of discussion boards so as to further develop discussion that take place after a film. These discussion boards will also enable to enfranchisement of those who are unable to attend actual discussions due to work commitments but have seen the film so as to be in a position to contribute. Equally, students who may feel uncomfortable about contributing to discussions at an actual film showing may feel more comfortable discussing a film in Cyberspace and this may in turn develop their confidence so they feel able to contribute at an actual group discussion.
It has already been suggested by colleagues that there is scope for this activity to be further developed into a module on the LLB programme and that may be explore dint he future. The group also benefits from a broad title, it is not a ‘Law and Movie’ group – rather Law on Film will allow us to drawn on a range of relevant television series whether it be ‘Ally McBeal’, ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Queer as Folk’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘This Life’ or ‘Yes Minister’ to mention but a few examples.
At present we look forward to a lively series of debates and discussions that allow students to draw upon their awareness and experience of film and transfer that into a broader understanding of the law they study and the wider context in which law is constructed and operates.
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Devils Advocate (1997)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Schindler’s List (1993)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Twelve Angry Men (1957)
24 Hour Party People (2002)