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Law Library Event—The Depiction of Law in Film and Television

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Professor of Law Jessica Silbey presenting, “A History of Law in American Film,” on July 20, 2016. Photo by Liah Caravalho

“You have the right to remain silent” are words that have become ubiquitous in American popular culture due to the many reiterations of the Miranda warning in television and film. The Miranda warning, which protects defendants against self-incrimination during criminal interrogations, is the result of the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miranda v. Arizona.

This year, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision. The legal conception of self-incrimination, however, dates back to 13th century philosopher Moses Maimonides, explained Law Librarian of Congress Roberta I. Shaffer at a recent event that highlighted the historical depiction of law in film and television. The Law Library of Congress and the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation hosted the event on Wednesday, July 20 at the Packard Campus Theater in Culpeper, Virginia.

The event featured Professor of Law Jessica Silbey from Northeastern University School of Law, who presented a fascinating lecture titled, A History of Law in American Film.  Her lecture examined the trial film genre from the beginning of film in 1895 to the present day as a means to explain the relationship between popular culture and law.

Silbey stated that she was particularly interested in the question—“what kind of community does legal popular culture create, that is, how does law and film shape are expectations about what the law and the American justice system are about?”

Before Silbey’s presentation, Rob Stone, Library of Congress motion picture curator, shared a TV and film montage.  The montage helped to illustrate how the reading of the Miranda warning has evolved over the last 50 years. It included a 1966 clip from the American detective television show, Dragnet, which according to Stone showed the reading of the Miranda warning verbatim “to the credit of TV producer and actor Jack Webb.” It also included more recent television clips from television shows such as The Good Wife and Benched, along with recent film clips from the motion pictures­­ 21 Jump Street and Shrek—all of which included recognizable portions of the Miranda warning.

Stone stated that while creating the montage he discovered that the text of the Miranda warning had become shorter over the years in film and television because “people knew what you were going to say.” He traced the evolution from 1966 when television and film readings included the full script of the Miranda warning, to a mere question: “Did you read him his rights?” And finally presently to a single verb—Mirandize.

Similarly, Silbey examined how the trial film genre has changed over the course of time, and how these changes have shaped our expectation and perception of law. For example, she highlighted progress in film editing and how editing techniques create logic by ordering certain scenes in a particular way which impacts how we interpret characters and scenes.

She also discussed how film directors such as D.W. Griffith, in the early 20th century, used film techniques to create intimacy with characters in such films as The Birth of a Nation and how narratives constructed around the discovery of a missing piece of evidence served as the climax of many films created during this period. This narrative, Silbey argued, allowed audiences to learn the same information as the jury did in the film.

Moreover, Silbey reviewed how early Hollywood films such as the 1936 film, Fury, depicted the law failing a man wrongly accused while the 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, develops a more hopeful depiction of law.  Later films, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and even present day films such as Erin Brokovich and Civil Action show how individuals’ desires for justice impact the legal process.

In closing, Sibley discussed more modern-day resources, such as cell phone footage and dash cameras, and how they are being used as evidence in police brutality cases. She argued that film needs a lot of explanation; thus, we must be careful in thinking we can accept these images as truth–without interpretation. “Truth is not easy to see, and it is rarely on film and television as hard as we may look.  What we see are myths and ideals, and nightmares.  The truths of our lives are much more complicated,” Sibley said. “We have to realize that we view films with preconceived notions,” Sibley added. Films tell important stories and can foster social change and civic engagement, she argued.  But she concluded that “we need much more than these beloved characters and shocking images to fulfill the promise of equal justice under the law.”

Update: Event video added below.


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