Fighting the System in 12 Angry Men and A Time to Kill

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Legal dramas provide audiences the opportunity to enter the world of the courtroom in addition to dramatized emotions as reflected by the characters (typically the lawyer and juries) of the film. The Post-Classical era film 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) and the Post-Modernist film A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher, 1996) consist of a goal-driven protagonist finding the truth and meaning in societal paradoxes while overcoming strong adversity. However, the legal drama genre shift between the Post-Classical and Post-Modernist eras (as seen in the two films) from a character-driven genre to an expository-character genre is attributed to the paranoia brought on by forces such as McCarthyism in the 1950’s and America’s internal conflicts and mistrust of the government in the 1990’s. The drama genre goes back to the early nineteenth century and lays the foundation for character and plot as reflected in legal dramas of today. “The proper fate for the dramatic hero or heroine was to learn Christian resignation by preserving moral purity in the face of great trials and tribulations,” (Cawelti 38). The idea of good versus evil, right versus wrong, stemmed from the belief that to be “good” was having a strong faith in God and the resultant courage to act on one’s good intentions. This genre myth carried over to the middle of the twentieth century and served as the basis of the first legal dramas. However, Cawlti states, the emphasis on God were taken out of the moral equation to “seek for other means of affirming transcendent moral truths in secular, naturalist world,” (47). Regardless of the inclusion or exclusion of God in the dramatic genre myth, the consistency of the main protagonist “doing the right thing” and “fighting the inju... ... middle of paper ... ...nge within this genre. Paranoia due to McCarthyism in the 1950s and an overall fear and ultimate mistrust in domestic affairs in the 1990s altered both the presentation of the legal drama, and the message it conveyed to the audience. What started as films focused on the protagonist’s goals and motivations was transformed into an expository look into the world in which we all live, and the prejudice, evil, and suffering that still exists (often because of our legal system rather than in spite of it. It was no doubt the audience’s personal taste that ultimately affected the genre. Fear and paranoia will always be prevalent in American society—these emotions have become a way of life. As our culture evolves, it will be our own perceptions of these issues that propel the subject matter and, in turn, the protagonist’s fight for Justice in the legal melodrama.
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