Last weekend saw the release of the documentary RBG, about the life and career of boundary-breaking, meme-friendly supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg is a towering, inspiring figure, and seeing her story (or, really, even just thinking about it for a while) might make you hungry for more lady-powered courtroom drama. Collected here are five movies that explore the trials, successes and setbacks of women working in the law.
This 2016 HBO film recounts the confirmation hearing of then-supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas (played here by Wendell Pierce) in 1991. The confirmation process was disrupted by Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill (Kerry Washington), who testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her while she was his employee.
Confirmation is interesting for the mostly objective stance it takes on the story, never claiming to establish whether one side or the other was “telling the truth.” It does, however, show the patriarchal attitudes of the Republican and Democratic men on the senate judiciary committee that kept them from giving Hill a fair shake. Washington portrays Hill with a restrained dignity, and when that dignity drops, it’s a big deal. When Washington’s Hill says she’s tired of the ordeal and wants to go home, her exhaustion and disappointment feel real.
On the lighter end of the spectrum, there’s this 2001 classic, featuring Reese Witherspoon as perky, plucky law student extraordinaire Elle Woods. Elle is an optimistic woman who’s keen to make a difference. Rather than judge her for her mostly-pink wardrobe, perfect manicure and immaculately-dressed chihuahua, Legally Blonde makes the empowering choice of showing how Elle uses her social intelligence, work ethic and positive attitude to achieve her goals.
On the surface, Elle appears to be a novelty. The movie broadcasts her fish-out-of-water status, with her bright attitude and even brighter outfits standing in stark contrast to her serious, buttoned-up classmates. But she ultimately succeeds through her strong relationships, belief in herself and sheer hard work, without having to compromise any of her personality. As of 2017, Witherspoon was suggesting a possible third movie. If that ever happens, “Supreme Court Justice Elle Woods” sounds like as good an idea as any. I’d like to think RBG would approve.
Justice Ginsburg would almost certainly not approve of the courtroom antics in this 1943 George Cukor comedy (the setup alone is an ethics nightmare). However, it’s worth noting that the movie takes a pretty progressive approach to women’s rights for its time, showing an empowered woman lawyer in a supportive marriage, and posing questions about the different ways society judges men and women when they do wrong.
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are married lawyers who find themselves on opposite ends of the same case: a woman on trial for attempting to shoot her philandering husband. Tracy’s Adam is representing the district attorney’s office. Hepburn’s Amanda takes on defense for the woman, not to prove her innocence (the woman has already confessed), but to prove her justification. Amanda believes her client is being judged more harshly because she’s a woman. Arguments in the courtroom start spilling over into life at home, disrupting Adam and Amanda’s previously happy marriage.
In addition to its courtroom banter, Adam’s Rib shows a portrait of a strong marriage built on mutual respect. Amanda and Adam admire each other’s intelligence and dedication to their work. Their conflict isn’t rooted in competition or sexism, but from a disagreement in values that the couple have to work through together. Ultimately, Adam’s Rib shows how its central characters are independently capable, but are at their best when they support each other.
Julia Roberts’ crusading legal clerk doesn’t have a law degree, but that hardly matters. Her efforts make her worthy of the company of anyone else on this list. Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film tells the real-life story of Brockovich, who built a water contamination case against Pacific Gas & Electric while working at a law firm in the early 90s.
While Erin Brockovich’s script can feel cliched - virtually every scene is an excuse for Roberts to make a sassy remark or give an emotional speech - Soderbergh’s direction elevates the material significantly. The film’s monochromatic tones communicate a wasteland of fluorescent-lit offices, municipal courtrooms and desert landscapes dominated by the poisonous PG&E plant. The grounded performances from Roberts and Albert Finney, as Brockovich’s boss Ed Masry, help, too, as well as the huge cast of plaintiffs they help, adding a layer of naturalism to scenes that could have very easily gone melodramatic.
A Few Good Men
The Rob Reiner-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted military legal drama A Few Good Men may not have a single woman in the title, but without the work of Demi Moore’s naval investigator JoAnne Galloway, there would be no story. It’s JoAnne who uncovers information on the killing of Private William Santiago at Guantanamo Bay and brings it to her superiors’ attention, believing it (correctly) to be the result of officer-ordered hazing.
JoAnne is a capable, passionate lawyer who wants to argue for a lighter sentence for the two marines who committed the hazing. However, she’s a little too passionate, so the case gets kicked to newly-minted hotshot lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Cruise), who’s supposed to go for a plea bargain. The rest of the movie becomes Daniel’s story as JoAnne convinces him to stick up for their clients and put up a fight. A Few Good Men is powerful drama, but beneath the legal intrigue, there’s also a familiar story of a woman forced to step aside from a job that she knows should be hers to make room for a less qualified man.