The Politics of Law and Film Study: An Introduction to the Symposium on Legal Outsiders in American Film

15 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2009

Date Written: July 29, 2009


The articles collected in this Symposium Issue on Legal Outsiders in American Film are examples of a turn in legal scholarship toward the analysis of culture. The cultural turn in law takes as a premise that law and culture are inextricably intertwined. Common to the project of law and culture is how legal and cultural discourse challenge or sustain communities, identities and relations of power. In this vein, each of the articles in this Symposium Issue look closely at a film or a set of films as cultural objects which, when engaged critically, help us think about law as an evolving web of social and political connections and, in light of those connections, about its capacity for justice. Each article differently imagines the legal outsider and the community against which the outsider is positioned. And yet each article similarly asks the fundamental question of law: is justice for all possible when exclusion and dominance appear as inevitable features of law’s application.

Law and cultural studies can be too easily marginalized by the legal academy. This is because of an omission on the part of some law and cultural studies scholarship and a mistaken understanding by others of the import of cultural analysis. Cultural studies scholars tend to divide their analysis into the study of production, reception and representation. We may investigate the means by which a cultural object is produced, the ways in which an object is perceived by its audience, and the manner in which it may be interpreted based on its particular formal structure. Too often, the cultural analysis of law omits the analysis of the subject of law: the citizen on whom the law acts and who acts on behalf of it. Locating the construction of that citizen in the text (as an effect of representational practice), through the text (as a result of reception theory), or as an origination of the text (a means of its production) emphasizes the political nature of all cultural production. Attending to the social subject and her community at the center of a text goes a long way to answer the cynics who ask 'so what' when legal scholars write about film or literature.

Each of these articles in this Symposium Issue incorporates the audience as a social category on which film acts and through which law’s authority persists. In describing the outsider to law in film and the popular legal consciousness constituted by the film, each comments on the relations of power the film enables or critiques. In so doing, each paper engages the politics of law and film studies.

Keywords: law and film, cultural studies, cultural analysis of law, jurisprudence, criminal law, law and the humanities, law and literature

Suggested Citation

Silbey, Jessica M., The Politics of Law and Film Study: An Introduction to the Symposium on Legal Outsiders in American Film (July 29, 2009). Suffolk University Law Review, Vol. 42, p. 755, 2009, Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 09-34, Available at SSRN:

Jessica M. Silbey (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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