There have been several films about lawyers or court cases in the past 50 years that have really stood out as important. They're important because they've shown how the criminal justice system or those who get involved in it can be flawed or can be fighters who salvage society or make our country that much better.
Some examples include The Verdict (1982) or even Erin Brockovich (2000). Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) was brilliant because it exposed the prejudice's and bigotries that can taint juries during deliberation, though one of my all time favorite is Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993). The legal case in that film exposed America's underlying homophobia.
Homophobia is another kind of bigotry, one that hasn't been explored that much in mainstream cinema. Racism is a bigotry that has been explored in great detail. One would think it's been explored too much, if not ad nauseum. One would think that in the 21st century there would be no more legal cases with which to explore it.
The recently confirmed drug czar Gil Kerlikowske stated in a Wall Street Journal interview on May 14 that the Obama administration would end "the war on drugs," mostly by changing policy to focus more on treatment and reducing demand. This comes after President Obama's trip to Mexico where he discussed the drug trafficking problem between the U.S. and its southern-border country. The Obama administration says currently the war on drugs has created a disparity, one that unfairly targets blacks.
In this film, Dee Roberts, a single, black woman who lives in a ghetto-like housing project with four daughters in Texas, gets arrested during a huge, drug raid by the sheriff's office and is charged with a crime she didn't commit. Roberts is offered a plea deal that she refuses. The ACLU takes her case and uncovers the corruption that goes all the way up to the district attorney's office.
Written by Bill Haney and directed by Tim Disney, the great-nephew of Walt Disney, this film takes a stark look at racism within law enforcement, which of course bleeds over to the courts. Based on a real trial that happened in 2001, the filmmakers lay bare the right and wrong clearly. Anchoring this legal fight with the determination of a mother trying to hold custody of her children and be the face of a cause against racism, I would rank this film up there with such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
Dee Roberts is played by Nicole Behairie with the strength and ferocity of a mama bear protecting her cubs. She's beautiful but tough. Despite the hard road of which she's warned, Roberts knows she has to fight not only to keep her kids but also to set the right example for them.
Good actors in supporting roles also prop up this film. From Oscar-nominated actor Michael O'Keefe who plays Calvin Beckett, the venal district attorney to the Oscar-nominated Alfre Woodard who plays the church-going, sassy yet anxiety-ridden grandmother, this movie has an amazing cast.
There are young black actors in this film who I must single out. One of them is Malcolm Barrett, who plays Byron White, one of the ACLU lawyers. Barrett recently had a role on an ABC sitcom where he played a nerdy scientist. I didn't recognize him at all here. His character consoles Roberts and is very comforting. At the end, he has a showdown scene, which boasts his wily smarts, giving him an equivalent moment to Tom Cruise vs. Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992). I loved it.
The other actor is Anthony Mackie who plays Mr. Porter. Mackie has recently appeared in the Oscar-nominated film Half Nelson (2006) as well as the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby (2004). He had significantly larger roles in those movies, whereas here he only gets one small scene. Yet, his character is one of the most memorable. Porter is called to testify at a deposition, but he's highly afraid. There is no question that Mackie makes you understand this man's fear and unequivocally why he's afraid. It becomes palpable.
This film only played in limited release back in April. It didn't get as much of a brouhaha as the other movie about a black woman that gets in trouble with the law, namely Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail. It probably won't get released on DVD for a wider audience until summer's end, but I encourage all to seek it out. It is my choice for one of the best films of 2009.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references and language
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.