Truth Tales and Trial Films

39 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2020

See all articles by Jessica M. Silbey

Jessica M. Silbey

Northeastern University - School of Law; Northeastern University - Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity


Investigations into law and popular culture preoccupy themselves with understanding how law and popular cultural forms work together to challenge or sustain community structures, identity and power. It is inevitable at this point in our cultural history that law and popular culture are intertwined. There are too many television shows, films, popular novels and web-based entertainment to withdraw "the law" (whatever that is) from the domain of popular culture. This article takes as a given the intermixing of law and popular culture, embracing it as a new feature of our popular legal consciousness. I suggest that one result of this mixing -- what I call truth tales, which are fictionalized films that are nonetheless based on true stories about law -- is to enhance our critical capacity to engage the law as a hopeful and evolving web of social, civic and political codes that shape our expectations for justice in contemporary society.

This article proceeds in five parts. Part I outlines a brief history of interdisciplinary legal studies, in particular law and cultural studies. Part II discusses the subfield within law and cultural studies of law and film, as a way to set the stage for a longer discussion in Parts IV and V of two truth tales, "Compulsion" and "Swoon." Part III more specifically describes the parameters of the "truth tale" as a subgenre of courtroom drama that affects a particular kind of popular legal consciousness, one that accepts as futile law's presumed search for unconditional truth and embraces instead the legal system's promise of due process as based on normative values of fairness. Parts IV and V are close readings of the two films by way of application of the interpretive methodology and conceptual framework outlined in Parts II and III.

Keywords: law and film, law and humanities, law and popular culture, interdisciplinary legal studies, law and literature, cultural analysis of law, law and culture, popular legal consciousness, cinema, trials, litigation

JEL Classification: K10, K40, K41

Suggested Citation

Silbey, Jessica M., Truth Tales and Trial Films. Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, Vol. 40, p. 551, 2007; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 07-05. Available at SSRN:

Jessica M. Silbey (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

Northeastern University - Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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