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Culture by Cinema

Films are the easiest way to understand the social, political, and demographic influences that often affect legislators and Supreme Court decisions. Many of the movies I’m including in this list aren’t just fun, although many of them are excellent entertainment; they give you a hint of what molds American law.

Other films, while not directly related to legal issues, help you to understand issues of social importance with regard to the history of the United States, the current state of racial and ethnic relations, and other matters of social importance. For each film, I've tried to describe why I think it is influential to your understanding of society, and occasionally clarify some popular misconceptions about the film.

If you look not only at the featured story but also at the roles given to minor actors and bit players, if you listen to the words that you don't understand, and hit the pause button, and find out why George M. Cohan says, "it's time to close down the minstrel shows; they're not making money anymore," you'll begin to fit together the fabric of American society. How were Blacks, Jews, Italians, gays, anarchists, and of course women, treated in American society? What issues did the legislature and the Supreme Court have to struggle with to build a country out of state laws written by fundamentalist Christians, Jim Crow, rampant anti-Semitism, the happy belief that the United States was the best country in the whole wide world, and radicals like Clarence Darrow, Lillian Hellman, and Frank Sinatra? To what extent did the geopolitical realities change America's politics from the World War I patriotism of "The Jolson Story" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to the world portrayed in the institutionalized bigotry of the Army in "From Here to Eternity" or "Judgment at Nuremberg"?

If you see America through its films, you'll understand why some laws were written the way they were written, why some issues were ignored when you thought they should have been dealt with, why legal principles that were considered egregiously wrong in one generation were given "full faith and credit," as our Constitution says, a generation later.

UCLA law school seems to agree that an understanding of the law requires an understanding of society. In fact, they teach a course on it.

Law 595 - Law and Popular Culture [UCLA Law School]

This seminar focuses on the interface between two important subjects: law and popular culture. Before class, students will see a series of films or television shows relating to law, lawyers, and the legal system. There is also a weekly homework assignment based on materials in the assigned text and the assigned film or TV show. We will discuss the pop culture treatment of subjects such as the adversary system, good and bad lawyers, female lawyers, lawyers from the LGBT community, minority lawyers, the work life of lawyers, legal education, ethical issues, the jury system, and criminal and civil justice. The seminar discussions will draw on film theory and film-making technique to deepen understanding of the interrelationship between law and popular culture. The discussions will illuminate the ways in which pop culture products both reflect and change social views about law and lawyers...

And you're lucky; I give you my version for free.

Reviews of more than two dozen movies are going to take an awful lot of space. I'm going to divide them up into topics and link several at a time into extra pages. But I promise nothing will be lost; knowing me, it's much more likely that something will be added!

None of these lists is intended to be comprehensive; they're basic background for the social issues and eras.

The Civil War

Ellis Island Patriots

World War I and Post-War

The Great Depression and the Rise of Naziism

World War II

1950s Isolation and Suspicion

Racial Equality

Equality for Women



Life in the Big City

It makes sense to start at the beginning and work your way forward. It also makes sense to start at the end and work your way back. It even makes sense to start at some point in the middle and work both forwards and backwards. The only thing that doesn't really make sense is the random approach. This is a guided tour, and it can work in several different directions, but the random approach is unguided, and it may be more fun, but less educational.

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