Published on February 19, 2008
The Maguffin: The Maguffin America's post-O.J. preoccupation with justice and the breakdown of the jury system gives rise to the Maguffin. The Maguffin is the issue of public dishonesty—specifically corruption in the courts, the church, real estate, and the city and state governments. The Maguffin is never dealt with overtly nor is it resolved. It merely dwells beneath the surface in order to move the plotline along so that we can do what we are supposed to do: watch the tortured journey of Vail—the ultimate con man—who ultimately wriggles on his own hook. watch the tortured journey of Venable—the female lawyer—who ultimately fails as she attempts to master the hierarchical legal world and do what all female lawyers must do: choose between her two fathers. The Setting: The Windy City: The Setting: The Windy City Chicago is central to the plotline which involves contradiction and corruption: The Archbishop abuses his position by sexually abusing young teens. The State’s Attorney (DA) is lining his own pockets through corrupt real estate deals. Vail's legal team (Andre Braugher and Maura Tierney) shows signs of mutiny, as evidence continues to point to their client’s guilt. The windy city is portrayed as a fluid operation which works well for the unquestioning rich and powerful. The Accused: The Accused Aaron Stampler appears to be a stammering Kentucky youth caught red-handed for hacking to death Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson), one of the city's most respected figures. His frustratingly uncooperativeness is soon explained when he displays multiple personalities. While a person with multiple personalities can be judged based on the dominant personality only, Illinois is relatively unique in allowing for a hybrid penalty. A jury can find a defendant “guilty but mentally ill” (GBMI) if he suffers “from substantial disorder of thought, mood, or behavior” that impaired his judgment. They are sentenced to prison instead of a mental institution but the court can require psychiatric treatment in prison or recommend other sentencing alternatives. The death penalty is usually not given in GBMI cases. This hybrid system allows for compromise between a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and innocence by reason of insanity. In the end, his performance raises serious questions about the role of legal professionals and the effectiveness of the justice system generally. Edward Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for this role—his feature-film debut. The Producers originally wanted Leonardo DiCaprio but he passed on the part. After interviewing 2,100 potentials, Norton was cast. His audition consisted of a fake accent and a lie that he grew up in Kentucky. Father #1: Richard Gereas Martin Vail: Father #1: Richard Gere as Martin Vail Richard Gere plays the classic morally ambiguous protagonist. Hollywoodland has transitioned from cops, to private detectives, and most recently attorneys who solve crimes. Vail is the latest crime-solver in this chain of narrative development. Martin Vail used to eke out a living in the Chicago district attorney’s office but left under a cloud. Now he is a superlawyer who'll represent anyone-as long as they're rich, controversial, and high-profile. He is a famous, self-assured, gorgeous, sexy, cool, winning, celebrity defense attorney. On the other hand… Martin Vail is a cynical, greedy, publicity-hound, ambulance-chasing, insecure womanizer who can’t get enough validation no matter how much ink is spilled on his exploits. Vail is ultimately transformed from an amoral (if you want justice “go to a whorehouse for that”) attorney to one who actually cares about justice. He lost out to the other father in the classic father-daughter relationship with Janet Venable but seeks to reclaim her through his pursuit of justice. Hence, he is positioned as Venable’s “good” father. Father #2: John Mahoney as John Shaughnessy: Father #2: John Mahoney as John Shaughnessy Like all Chicago/Illinois politicians, he becomes the powerful State’s Attorney (DA) through his connections and corruption. A friend of the slain archbishop who wants to see the death penalty imposed. He has battled Vail on other matters when they used to work together—mainly for influence with Janet Venable. He takes a meddlesome interest in the Stampler verdict by assigning his puppet (Venable) to the case. In this way, he can control the case and once again best Vail on both a personal and professional level. Shaughnessy is positioned as Venable’s “bad” father. Portrayal of Women: Laura Linney as Janet Venable: Portrayal of Women: Laura Linney as Janet Venable Convinced of Stampler's guilt and still steaming over Vail's past behavior, Venable takes the case seriously and is determined to best her old mentor and lover in a web of Electra/Oedipal subconscious emotional and sexual foreplay. She provides the classic female lawyer paradox: She at once represents achievement and equality as the lead prosecutor in a high-profile case yet she is also a subservient puppet to the hierarchical male–dominated criminal process controlled by her two competing fathers (her boss and Vail). Indeed, this is precisely why she was selected by her boss for this case. What is in her future? The choice for Venable is the same choice faced by nearly all female lawyers working within the hierarchy: she can continue being a servant of her male superiors, the law, and the state and climb the male-controlled political ladder or she can go join Vail in the pursuit of justice—if Vail chooses to go that route—or fame and fortune—if Vail goes back to his old ways. No matter what she chooses it will be based on male-dominated hierarchy. We are pretty sure that she will ultimately choose the “good” father Vail—mostly because she has already made that choice, regrets it, and sees that he has “changed” enough for her to consider it. Therefore, she wouldn’t be “going back” so much as in her mind “moving forward.” We, or course, no better as sleeping with your father is never the right choice either literally or symbolically. Portrayal of Women: Maura Tierney as Naomi Chance: Portrayal of Women: Maura Tierney as Naomi Chance What characteristics does she display? What do we know about her past? How did she come to work for Vail? What is in her future? Portrayal of Women: Alfre Woodard as Judge Miriam Shoat: Portrayal of Women: Alfre Woodard as Judge Miriam Shoat What characteristics does she display? Given what we know from female lawyer films and other films with female characters, what would a picture based on Judge Shoat portray? What was in her past and what is in her future? What does her stash of alcohol in her chambers tell us about her? What do we know about her past? How did she become a judge? No-nonsense, authoritative, she allows the state to show bloody photos of the victim even though evidence is not supposed to appeal to jurors’ emotions. Why? When Vail attempts to change his client’s plea mid-way through the trial, she forbids it, thereby forcing him to use an alternate method of getting his client off by reason of insanity. However, Illinois law does allow for changing pleas during a trial. So why did Shoat forbid it, knowing full well that she would be overturned on appeal? She attained her judgeship via the corrupt political system of the state. She is therefore beholden to political powerbrokers if she has hopes of promotion to the higher state ranks or even the federal government as those positions too are controlled by state powerbrokers. Portrayal of Women: Frances McDormand as Dr. Molly Arrington: Portrayal of Women: Frances McDormand as Dr. Molly Arrington Due to his frequent blackouts, Arrington diagnoses the accused with multiple-personality disorder and testifies as an expert witness at the trial. What characteristics does she display? What do we know about her past? Because she is a psychiatrist, she has an M.D. What is in her future? The “Magic Negro” in Film: The “Magic Negro” in Film In the 1950s, postmodern film critics began to recognize Hollywood’s use of what the critics called the “Magic Negro”— a post-Brown v. Board of Education (1954) black cinematic character who arises to assuage white guilt over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sex holds no interest. He has no past. He simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. Examples: Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Scatman Crothers, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Smith, Laurence Fishburne, and, most recently, Don Cheadle. Is Vail’s No. 2 Tommy Goodman (played by Andre Braugher) the “Magic Negro?” Was Jed Ward’s No. 2 Nick (played by Laurence Fishburne) the “Magic Negro?” 1996 Review by the Washington Post’s Desson Howe: “But the showstopper is Braugher, who appeared in "Glory" and plays Detective Pembleton in the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Streets." As Tommy Goodman, Vail's right-hand man, he's far too smart to be anyone's assistant, but this doesn't stop him from doing an exemplary job. And as the case gets tougher, Braugher carries the weight in his pained, ironic expressions. In a way, he's the touchstone of the movie: Look at his face and you can see how everything's going. If "Primal Fear" achieves nothing else, it makes a powerful case for him to take the plunge and act full-time on the big screen.” Is Judge Miriam Shoat (played by Alfre Woodard) the “Magic Negro?” The “Magic Negro” in Non-Film Contexts: The “Magic Negro” in Non-Film Contexts Does this prototype apply in non-film contexts? Was Magic Johnson a “Magic Negro?” In March 2007, early in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, columnist David Ehrenstein suggested that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) was running in the public imagination for the office “Magic Negro”—a kind of benign African-American figure who is there to help and for whom even mild criticisms are waved away magically: “He used to smoke, but now he doesn't; he racked up a bunch of delinquent parking tickets, but he paid them all back with an apology. And hey, is looking good in a bathing suit a bad thing?.... Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.” Contrast this with all-star Gary Sheffield’s 2007 comments in GQ about the dwindling number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball and the growing number of Latin players: “I called it years ago. What I called is that you're going to see more black faces, but there ain't no English going to be coming out. … [It's about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do -- being able to control them. Where I'm from, you can't control us. You might get a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end, he is going to go back to being who he is. And that's a person that you're going to talk to with respect, you're going to talk to like a man. These are the things my race demands. So, if you're equally good as this Latin player, guess who's going to get sent home? I know a lot of players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys.” Is Sheffield a Magic Negro? Conclusion: Conclusion Hollywoodland’s portrayal of female lawyers in the 1980s and 1990s was paradoxical: while women attained a certain level of status they were still beholden to the system. The classic Electra/Oedipal, mother-father-daughter triangle is once again present as the female lawyer must choose between the good and bad fathers. The “magic negro” is also present in the form of Vail’s No. 2 Tommy Goodman, but not Judge Miriam Shoat. Credits: Credits Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies, rev. ed. (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel, 2006). Ebert, Roger, “Primal Fear,” rogerebert.com, April 5, 1996. Ehrenstein, David, “Obama the ‘Magic Negro,’” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2007. Howe, Desson, “’Fear,’ Then Loathing,” Washington Post, April 5, 1996. Kempley, Rita, “A Houdini of a Whodunit,” Washington Post, April 3, 1996. Parsons, Chad, “Parody Stirs Racial Debate,” Chicago Tribune, May 6, 2007.