I was clearing out my DVR and decided to watch …And Justice for All. I like Al Pacino, who plays the role of Arthur Kirkland, as an actor and had never heard of this film. The date on the movie is 1979 and in addition to Pacino the cast includes Joe Morton (Poppa Pope), Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Lahti.
Here’s the storyline posted on IMDB:
When a judge is charged with rape, Arthur Kirkland is forced to defend him. Kirkland has had problems with the judge in the past, including one incident when the judge wrongly sentenced his client Jeff McCullaugh because of a technicality. Kirkland faces a moral and legal dilemma.
I love a good legal thriller and with a cast of actors I like, I was all set to enjoy a good story. I was not prepared for the gratuitous derogatory depictions of black men and women that opened the film. Here’s the chronological cast of black characters in the first 15 minutes of the movie, which by the way, is set in Baltimore, Maryland:
- The opening scene of red high heels stepping out of car turns out to be a black man dressed as a woman. He’s wearing a blond wig and is being escorted into jail. As he walks through the holding cells, he is verbally assaulted by the other detainees, and almost all of them are black. It would appear the purpose of this scene is to introduce Al Pacino’s character, Arthur Kirkland, as a detainee (he’s a lawyer who got into a fight with a judge). The scene ends with the two cops (one white and one black) making the cross-dressing black man remove his dress revealing bra, panties, and red garter belt. Kirkland is released and as they show him walking past the holding cells unaccompanied, the undressed black man with his head hanging down in shame, is on display the entire shot.
- The next black character is a woman in a car with one of Kirkland’s clients. When you see them sitting in the car, it looks like she is wearing a business suit. I was so hoping that she was his assistant – a sassy one like Cookie has in Empire. When they finally exit the car, the white client basically tells Kirkland to ignore the woman Now that she is fully out of the car you can see that she is a prostitute, neither of them say goodbye to her as she tightens her coat and fades into the background.
- Up next we see Kirkland walking through the halls of court. He passes a black mother berating her black son, slapping him on the head and three different white lawyers with three different young black men who all have attitudes and one liners that show their disdain for authority.
- The last scene in this 15 minute time frame shows Jeffrey Tambor “defending” a young black man. The black man looks to be in his early 20s. It’s revealed that it is his fourth time in court. His list of offenses include arson, assault, and grand larceny with the current charge being indecent exposure. The judge asks, “What’s the matter… Can’t you decide what you want to be when you grow up?” And everyone laughs. The young man answers, “Yes … I’m a loyal Colts fan.” And there’s more laughter. The judge responds, “You are also a revolting, despicable, scum of the earth who should be taken out and squashed like a cockroach.”
(That last example hits a little too close to home considering the number of black men and women whose potential are squashed by biased legal practices even now.)
The entire rest of the movie was colored “no pun intended” by the first 15 minutes. I debated whether or not I wanted to continue watching. Any possible enjoyment of the story or acting was totally irradiated by those opening scenes. Even the handful of ‘good’ black characters like the prison doctor played by Joe Morton, didn’t diminish my irritation with the film. A part of me was hoping that the story line would eventually show that there was a redeeming reason as to why those black men and women had been portrayed. There really wasn’t. There was however a poorly constructed story arch in which they attempted to use the case of the cross-dressing black character (Ralph Agee) to highlight Kirkland’s moral integrity:
Ralph asks Kirkland to take his case because he just “can’t do jail”. Kirkland agrees and intends to help him get probation instead of jail time. Due to incident with Kirkland’s law partner, he has to ask another colleague Warren, to show up at Ralph’s hearing. Warren doesn’t point out the inaccuracies in the probation paperwork as Kirkland asked him to so Ralph get’s three years in jail. Kirkland confronts Warren and bashes his car with his briefcase. Warren doesn’t understand why Kirkland is so upset, saying Ralph will get probation in eight months so why is he making such a big deal about the plight of this black man. Kirkland, with tears in his eyes, says, “They’re people. They are just people.”
There were tears in Kirkland’s eyes as he uttered those words. My eyes were bone dry.
Beyond the negative stereotypical images of black men and women, the film was less than impressive.who even the handful of ‘good’ black characters like the prison doctor played by Joe Morton, and the other roles The premise was promising but the story telling was bizarre. The music with the beginning credits and the closing scene with Jeffrey Tambor’s character (his law partner who a few scenes earlier was carried out on a stretcher on his way to the psyche ward after pelting guards and a judge with plates) greeting Kirkland on the courthouse steps by lifting up his toupee, leaned toward being comedic. I was surprised and disappointed to discover that Barry Levinson who wrote the screenplay for Sleepers (one of my favorite films) is listed as a writer.
Now I’ve seen I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, so I understand the types of roles that were available for black actors during the blaxploitation era. But …And Justice for All was not a blaxpoitation film; it was a mainstream film which made over $33,000,000 at the box office, making it one of the top 25 grossing films of the year along with Alien, Rocky II, The Muppet Movie, and Kramer vs.Kramer. And in 1979, it’s just 10 years away from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
Hours after watching I was still thinking about the black actors in the movie. I thought about the compromise they chose to make so they could work in Hollywood. I wondered if being in a movie with Al Pacino reduced the sting of playing stereotyped caricatures of black men and women. And for the non-black actors and crew members, I wonder if they ever did or thought about speaking up about a system that was out of order.