Short Films from Harvard Law Students Illuminate Issues of Justice — and Injustice

Posted on June 28, 2021 at 6:02 am

The law can be viewed as a menacing force to intimidate and coerce. But what happens when the law is challenged to right a wrong or create constructive change? Led by Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow and producer Joseph Tovares, twelve Harvard Law students set out to explore that intersection in LEGAL LENS, premiering Monday, June 28 on WORLD Channel’s LOCAL, USA with additional, exclusive shorts on YouTube. Through five short films featuring captivating profiles and passionate characters, the series examines how laws and regulations can either disrupt lives or lead to positive shifts, depending on how they are interpreted or contested.

“I’ve often thought it may seem strange, but that the closest activity to law, and law practice, is documentary filmmaking, because in a similar, maybe surprising way, we have to deal with the actual reality. This is not fiction. And at the same time, no one would deny there’s a shaping, there’s a choice-making, there’s a set of selection decisions,” Minow says.

The similarities between studying law and creating documentary films may not be obvious, like Minow suggests, but consider the larger themes of both: Lawyers craft stories to win their cases; documentarians lead viewers through a focused narrative to bring attention to an issue.

But more than the industries’ parallels, it’s about the reach film has when compared to law, says Kenyan LL.M. student Zamzam Mohammed, who worked to shine a light on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. She believes the medium can raise a new kind of awareness: “You can have a case in court, and only very few people would actually be able to understand what’s going on. But then when you have a film, anybody can watch a film on the subway, you can watch it when you’re cooking dinner. And so I think it’s something that helps people understand in a way that is clear for them,” she said.

David Benger, one of a team of students who focused on prison reform, found that documentary fit in seamlessly with his mission as a lawyer: to create broader awareness that, in turn, facilitates change. “I think we, as lawyers, try to convince people, not only that we’re right, but that people should care about what we have to say. And I think filmmaking is an extremely useful tool for helping people invest emotionally in real problems that other people have,” he said.

Starting the conversation, even if it seems like no substantial progress is being made, is half the battle, says LL.M. student Adam Posluns.

“Litigation doesn’t always have to be about big victories in court…Sometimes that change can happen just by initiating lawsuits, just by starting the litigation,” he said. “Because even if you don’t win, and sometimes you won’t win for various reasons…it can get other people to see that they can also litigate these issues. They don’t have to wait for their governments to come along.”

Law, these students agree, may seem straightforward on paper, but when film becomes an element, seeing the human stories behind those laws creates an expanded consciousness and adds a new angle to the purpose of law, offering insight that may otherwise be lost.

“Narrative storytelling, especially documentary storytelling, can help lawyers do their job better and remember that this is about people. I think the thing I hate the most is when people say, ‘Oh, let’s not focus on the facts. Let’s just focus on the law,’” said Elisabeth Mabus, J.D student from Jackson, Mississippi. “The facts are the people. And the facts are the people that the law impacts. And we cannot lose sight of that.”

The umbrella of human rights is what led Minow’s class to their underlying theme: home, and how the law can have such an effect on a person’s sense of it.

“Sometimes we forget the stories behind these legal cases, or don’t pay as much attention to stories behind these legal cases we read. We go straight to the legal issue. We go to the legal arguments, principles, but it’s a gentle reminder that behind every case there’s a human story…win or lose, there’s always that human story,” Daren Zhang, California J.D student, said.

Within these five films, the stories ultimately lead back to what makes a home, and how the idea of home, that basic and fundamental right, is challenged when human rights are threatened. According to Posluns, that was the driving force behind these stories. “I think people felt that human rights were being put on the back burner, that they’re being disregarded rather than championed…That human rights had become more bargaining chips in transactions rather than something to be fought for and to be championed around the world,” he said.

By looking at issues like climate change, immigration and gentrification through a legal lens, these future lawyers began to see their profession differently. By embarking on a mission to represent their characters (Lisa Newman, a working mother; Doris Landaverde, an 18-year Temporary Protected Status holder; Damali Vidot, an unassuming but confident community leader) justly and effectively, opinions on what practicing law means began to evolve.

Kevin Patumwat, a J.D student from Bangkok, Thailand, shared how the project underscored the role of ineffective lawyering: “I think this project really drove home the importance of how lawyers need to be able to use the knowledge, use the resources they have, and really more effectively advocate for the people who they’re advocating for.”

“Ultimately when you care about an issue and you want to tell a story about an issue, there’s a great deal of value in having many different tools in your toolbox for how to tell that story and how to make people care and that this may not be a part of their direct lived experience, but it’s something they should care about,” Benger echoed.

By shifting the gaze of litigation onto honest, human stories, LEGAL LENS offers a glimpse into how there is still room for change in the way law is interpreted and enacted.

“In a lot of our national conversations, I think we focus so much on the things that divide us. We forget often how much we have in common. And we forget to see all the things that unite us,” Boston, Massachusetts J.D student Tianhao He said. “Even though the films in this series all touch on different issue areas with different characters in different parts of life, I think we do see these universal themes. These universal themes of yearning for belonging, of the struggle and also the joys of building home in America.”

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Courtroom Documentary

Ruth — Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words

Posted on February 12, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 13, 2021
copyright 2021 Virgil Films

We’ve had a feature film about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early years (“On the Basis of Sex“) and an excellent documentary already (“RBG“). But if the late Justice Ginsburg were here today, she might prefer this documentary, featuring, as its title indicates, her own words, as she spoke them.

A few other people get to speak as well, including a colleague who worked with then-Professor Ginsburg on her ground-breaking briefs for her Supreme Court challenges to laws because they denied vital civil rights on the basis of gender. She says their goal was to see if they could get the briefs to “sing.” And “hers sang.” The elegance, grace, erudition, imperishable integrity, and inescapable logic of her legal writing was her superpower.

It almost seems laughable now that there was an Oklahoma statute allowing women to buy beer at age 18 but prohibiting men from buying it until age 21. Not only was there one, but Oklahoma felt so strongly about it they actually argued in support of it at the Supreme Court. The brilliance of Professor Ginsburg’s strategy was to bring cases that were unfair to men because of stereotypes about women. And so, she argued the case features in “On the Basis of Sex,” about a widower denied Social Security benefits because they were only given to single mothers, not fathers. And a case brought by a man who objected to the law making jury duty mandatory for men, but not for women, denying him a fully representative group. If the outcome of these cases seems obvious to us now, it is only because of Justice Ginsburg, who argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning all but one.

Most of her career was before the ubiquity of cameras, so the archival footage that this documentary draws from public appearances, most of them involving her being honored. One especially touching scene has her returning to the grade school she attended as a child. Her face is luminous as she visits the First Grade classroom where she learned to read and the library, now named for her, that she loved.

This familiar with her work will recognize but enjoy the segments about her devoted husband Marty, her amusement at her iconic status, and her love for opera, including an opera based on her improbable friendship with her ideological opposite, Justice Scalia. We also get a glimpse of some of today’s biggest names in their younger days, President Biden as Senator and as Vice President, for example, and a more collegial era in politics as Justice Ginsburg was nominated and confirmed. And we learn about the impact of Justice Ginsburg’s majority decision requiring the Virginia Military Institute to accept qualified women. Somehow she was not persuaded by the lawyer who argued that WMI teaches “manly values that only men can learn.” Her dissents had an important impact as well, as we learn from Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of landmark legislation tracking Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion. (Be sure to stay for the credits to see Ledbetter again.) Here’s hoping her blistering dissent in the Citizens United case has as meaningful a result.

Those who want to understand the importance of Justice Ginsburg’s words should read her decisions, which mean more than the interviews and interactions in this film. It is not so much the words that matter here as Justice Ginsburg’s intellect and her “consuming love” for the law, her character, her kindness, her empathy, and her purpose. She says she wants to be remembered as “someone who cares about people and does the best she can with the talents she has to make a contribution for a better world.” This movies shows she did all that and more.

Parents should know that this movie concerns gender discrimination. There is no bad language or violence but there are references to a sad death of a parent to injustice.

Family discussion: Why did Justice Ginsburg become such a well-known figure? Why are her dissents so significant?

If you like this, try: “On the Basis of Sex” and “RBG”

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The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on October 15, 2020 at 3:40 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use, bloody images, language throughout, and some violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Historical violence including riots, references to Vietnam War
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 16, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And that is how “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” based on events that occurred in 1968-69 and in development as a film more more than a decade, seems to have been made for exactly this moment of the fall of 2020. In an interview, Aaron Sorkin, first brought it to write the script by Steven Spielberg in 2006, said that he did not change a word. But he acknowledged that the world moved much closer to the issues in the film, based on the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago that led to riots, with then-mayor Richard J. Daley telling the police to “shoot to kill” and calling in the National Guard.

A year later, eight of the leaders of the protest were indicted for conspiracy and incitement to riot. The seven white defendants were represented by the activist lawyer William Kuntsler and Constitutional law expert Leonard Weinglass. The sole Black defendant, Bobby Seale, who was only in Chicago for four hours during the convention, was represented by civil rights attorney Charles Garry, who was in the hospital. Seale asked for a delay until his lawyer could be there, and the autocratic judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), clearly and vocally affronted by the protesters and their disrespect for authority, refused. Kunstler and Weinglass offered to represent him until Garry recovered, but he refused. Later, his case was separated from the others, which is why it is still known as the Chicago 7 trial.

The opening of the film is a master class on how to introduce a large group of central characters. The leaders of each group talk about their hopes and plans for the convention. Lyndon Johnson, whose decision not to run for re-election was in part due to increasing national opposition led to the nomination of his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, as the Democratic candidate. Many people thought there was no real difference between Humphrey and Johnson and between Humphrey and the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. This was the era of the “generation gap” as the baby boomers came of age wanting to see major changes in the treatment of what were still referred to as minorities, poor people, and women. But the different groups had very different ideas about how to be effective. Sorkin very effectively showcases the arguments for incremental vs. drastic change, for working within the system to replacing it with a better system.

Langella captures the frustration of a man who believes in the rules that got him where he is and fears that they all collapsing, with him all that stands between order and anarchy. Redmayne is perfect as the thoughtful, studious, thoroughly decent Hayden, and Cohen accomplishes the difficult balancing act of not turning the other Hoffman (the judge seems to take it very personally that they share a name) into the cartoon he sometimes seems to wish to be. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives Seale enormous courage and dignity and rising star Kelvin Harrison, Junior continues to impress with his performance as Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (whose murder is the subject of another rhymes with history 2020 movie, Judas and the Black Messiah). Also exceptional are Mark Rylance as Kuntsler (perhaps more thoughtful and even subdued than the real-life attorney) and Michael Keaton in two scenes as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Sorkin continues to be the best there is with elevating the dialogue just enough that we can almost imagine real people might be that intelligent and articulate and, well, decent. In any year, this film would be outstanding. But as it arrives on what Sorkin called “a collision course with history,” it is both a cautionary tale and a guiding light out of the darkness.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language, some drug use and alcohol, and historical peril and violence, including riots and references to the Vietnam War.

Family discussion: Which of the defendants best represents your view of tactics and communication strategies? What parallels do you see between this trial and the issues people are concerned about today? What are the most significant achievements from the 1968 protests?

If you like this, try: the animated documentary about the trial, “Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace,” Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a fictional story filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, with real scenes of the protest.

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American Bar Association: Documentaries about Crimes That Change Lives

Posted on August 3, 2020 at 8:32 pm

The American Bar Association’s magazine has an article about “documentaries that swayed criminal cases.” Documentaries can be a very effective form of journalism, advocacy, or both. One example in the article is Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost Trilogy, three films over a period of fifteen years about three teenage boys accused of the May 1993 murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys. Because the accused boys listened to heavy metal music and had been in trouble for various petty offenses, the prosecution alleged that they killed the young boys as a part of a Satanic ritual. The filmmakers originally assumed that the boys were guilty. One of them confessed. But as they talked to the families of the murdered boys and reviewed the evidence, they concluded that they were not guilty. The documentaries, the attention brought to the case by celebrities including some rock musicians, and the review of DNA evidence that showed no connection between the boys and the murder, led to their being released from prison, though not a full exoneration.

The article also discusses Surviving R. Kelly, which gave women who had been sexually abused by the singer the opportunity to tell their stories. “Days after the premiere, Georgia and Illinois opened criminal investigations and encouraged more victims to come forward. By the next month, Kelly had lost his record deal and been charged by the Cook County state’s attorney in Chicago with sex abuse. In July 2019, he got hit with federal sex abuse charges as well. At press time, he sits in a Chicago jail awaiting trial.” He had managed to avoid responsibility in an earlier trial. The evidence in the documentary provided a path to holding him accountable.

Other documentaries mentioned include The Central Park Five, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and documentary podcasts In the Dark and Serial.

The “documentary” footage taken by amateur observers has had an enormous impact recently, in tragedies like the death of George Floyd and in angry disputes over racist comments and wearing masks. Footage like that will certainly have an increasing impact on criminal and civil cases.

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Courtroom Crime Documentary

Just Mercy

Posted on January 9, 2020 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
Profanity: Strong language including n-word and other racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to violent crimes, non-explicit depiction of an execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 10, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 13, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

The third 2019 awards season story based on a real-life lawyer stars producer Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Legacy Museum (sometimes referred to as the Lynching Museum) and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The movie shows him as a young graduate of Harvard Law School who moved to the small town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Lee’s Atticus Finch, Stevenson defends those who were unfairly accused. He established the Equal Justice Initiative. The only other staff was a local woman named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson began helping men on death row at no cost.

The local community, especially law enforcement, did not like having old cases re-opened and weaknesses of evidence and exposed. The hostility and obstruction seemed insurmountable. But Stevenson was undaunted. Unlike most heroic lawyers in movies (and real life), this story does not have family members complaining that he is working too hard or a love interest who feels neglected. Stevenson does not lose his temper or feel like giving up. The great gift of this movie is what sometimes, if you are not watching carefully, may make it seem like its pilot light is turned down too low. This movie does have some rousing moments (and some sad ones) but it does not follow the usual courtroom underdog stories that make the intricacies of the judicial system follow the beats of a feel-good sports story.

Jordan is that rare performer who is a superb actor and a full-on movie star. After his electrifying appearance in “Black Panther,” he shows his range as a lawyer whose only superpowers are his integrity and his constant courtesy toward everyone he deals with. client, friend, and foe. The quiet power of the respect he shows to his clients is critical to gaining their trust and to restoring their sense of dignity in a system that has done its best to take it from them. And it is wisely given as much weight here as any revelation of evidence or legal right left out of the original proceedings.

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also treats Stevenson’s clients with respect, with an outstanding performance by Jamie Foxx as Stevenson’s first significant client. It’s a quieter role than we have seen him in for a while, and his subtle work here is extraordinary, telling us the whole history of a man who has never been able to expect fairness for himself or his family. Rob Morgan plays another prisoner, performed with heartwrenching simplicity and delicacy to bring home to us what brought Stevenson to devote his life to this cause.

Parents should know that this movie concerns men on death row and abuses of the justice system. It includes some strong language, including racist epithets, and references to sexual assault and violent crime an a non-explicit depiction of an execution.

Family discussion: Why was it important for Stevenson to address his clients and their families as Mr. and Mrs.? What kept him from giving up?

If you like this, try: Bryan Stevenson’s book and TED Talk, and documentary

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Based on a book Based on a true story Courtroom Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format Race and Diversity
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