Hollywood's White Legal Heroes and the Legacy of Slave Codes
AFTERIMAGES OF SLAVERY: ESSAYS ON APPEARANCES IN RECENT AMERICAN FILMS, LITERATURE, TELEVISION, AND OTHER MEDIA 145-63 (Marlene D. Allen & Seretha D. Williams eds., 2012)
21 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2020
Date Written: April 1, 2012
This chapter explores the portrayal of black defendants in mainstream legal cinema and draws connections between these portrayals, the legacy of slave codes, and the Supreme Court's rejection of statistical and historical proof of racism in the application of the death penalty. I focus on a sub-genre of legal cinema, what I call the "White Legal Hero" narrative. The typical white legal hero film tells the story of an innocent or otherwise righteous black male defendant facing a capital charge. He is represented by a white male "hero" lawyer who tries to overcome the racist justice system. The failure of this genre lies in the disconnect between the macroscopic findings of social scientists and moralized film narratives about individual lawyers. Studies show that racial disparities are prevalent throughout the legal system, from arrest through conviction and punishment, and eradicating these disparities will require deep, institutional changes, not the actions of one white legal hero.
I argue here that white legal hero films arise from the desire of American liberals to see today's manifestations of racism as manageable and tolerable. In turn, the films' overwhelming violence numbs audiences to the institutional racism of the American criminal justice system, making this racism easier to ignore. I ground this argument in a consideration of the criminal laws of slavery and how these laws continue to exert influence. I examine the U.S. Supreme Court opinion McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), which upheld capital punishment despite evidence of racial disparities in capital sentencing. I then examine two legal hero films that arose in the shadow of McCleskey: A Time To Kill (1996) and Amistad (1997). This reading reveals how white legal hero films diminish the popular importance of the racism revealed by the McCleskey opinion, creating a context in which the opinion, despite major logical and moral flaws, seems acceptable.
Keywords: Cinema, Capital Punishment, Amistad, A Time to Kill, Slave Codes, Slavery, McCleskey
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