Knowing It When We See It: Realism and Melodrama in American Film Since 'Birth of a Nation'
in Austin Sarat, Jessica Silbey & Martha Umphrey, Eds., Trial Films on Trial: Law, Justice, and Popular Culture, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press (2019)
66 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2019
Date Written: 2019
In American film, official law tends to be indifferent, bureaucratic, and corruptible, constantly threatening to produce injustice. In contrast, “justice” is individual, unambiguous and readily accessible. As a result, seeing justice done often requires extralegal intervention. Films offer alternate trials in which apparently realistic but emotionally charged representations of personal experience, rather than legal procedure and evidentiary standards, determine guilt or innocence. The fairness of the verdict in the filmic alternate trial is measured not by the standard of due process, but by the viewer’s moral sense. Nevertheless, as Carol Clover has observed, the narrative substructure of both the Anglo-American trial and mainstream film bear a striking resemblance. I argue that this resemblance arises from a common set of assumptions about narrative plausibility and the social world: the conventions that govern mainstream film are also the (largely unspoken) conventions of credibility and verifiability in legal discourse. Filmic alternate trials follow realist rules of evidence but articulates an underlying epistemology that is fundamentally melodramatic. They have done so at least since D. W. Griffith’s deeply influential “Birth of a Nation” (1915), and they continue to do so today. And these melodramatic trials of our social realities inform our perception in legal and non-legal settings in ways that are so familiar they have become invisible to us.
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