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The American trial and American cinema share certain epistemological tendencies. Both stake claims to an authoritative form of knowledge based on the indubitable quality of observable phenomena. And both are preoccupied with sustaining the authority that underlies the knowledge produced by visual perception. The American trial and cinematic form also increasingly share cultural space. Although the trial film (otherwise known as the courtroom drama) is as old as the medium of film, the continuing popularity of the legal drama centered on a courtroom verdict suggests more than a trend. The inherent affinities between law and film not only produce enduring and memorable stories about law and justice but help constitute a popular legal consciousness that sustains the authority of the rule of law in the United States. This article describes these affinities in more detail, tracing the common themes in trial films, the special case of trial film based on true stories, and the future of the genre in American popular culture. It concludes by reviewing the disciplinary approach to the study of law and visual popular culture.

Article

The early jury films typically portray the jury as a passive group of men who simply watch the trial with little reaction. They are meant to stand in for the viewer. The viewer, like the jury, is supposed to reach a verdict as to the defendant’s guilt or innocence. There are a few exceptions to this traditional portrayal of the jury. The exceptions involve a holdout juror who is dissatisfied with the verdict and conducts his or her own investigation. The most well known jury film, 12 Angry Men, which aired in 1957, marks a departure from these traditional and exceptional portrayals of a jury. This film is an outlier in the annals of jury films because it shows the jury at work; all the action takes place as the jury deliberates in the jury room. It also depicts an unusual scenario in which a single juror is able to stand up against the other 11 jurors and ultimately persuade them to change their votes. One reason this film has endured is that it depicts an individual’s uphill battle against a group. Another reason is that the plot has been incorporated into episodes of popular television shows so that new generations of viewers learn about it. There have been only a few modern films that focus on the jury. Some of these films return to the theme of the holdout juror who carries out a subsequent investigation to uncover the truth, whereas others show a juror who engages in misconduct or self-help in the face of a defendant who has abused the trial process. Although the focus on the holdout juror in many of these films, both old and new, provides drama, holdout jurors are hard to find in actual jury trials, especially when there are just one or two jurors who are holdouts.