Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

"Western" Notions of Justice: Legal Outsiders in American Cinema

Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

"Western" Notions of Justice: Legal Outsiders in American Cinema

Article excerpt

"When it comes to justice, the best thing to do is to tell a story about a man or a woman who effects justice, or who suffers for it, or who presumes to run roughshod over it, and to let it go at that." (1)

JUSTICE, LEGAL OUTSIDERS, AND CIVIL SOCIETY

The concept of justice is a dominant theme in traditional Western liberal culture. (2) Indeed, the ideal of justice has taken on an almost mythic quality in our political and social culture. (3) Interestingly, however, the prevailing myth (4) is not one where the possibility of finding justice lies in relying upon or utilizing the public institutions of Western society. (5) Instead, some of our most important cultural artifacts often go to great lengths to point out how finding justice in social and political institutions is seemingly impossible. The dominant message appears to be that justice is something found outside accepted social institutions, if it is to be found at all. Beyond this is the underlying perception that social institutions are often obstacles to the possibility of attaining justice. Civil society, then, is not the path to justice. In fact, many of the cultural messages we are exposed to suggest that following the bounds of civil society actually makes it less likely that justice will be attained. (6) Law, as a sociopolitical institution, and more specifically the judicial system, are frequent focal points for such criticism. (7)

These particular themes have found their way into all manner of cultural phenomena and are notably prevalent in several movie genres. Virtually every genre of film plays on this theme at some level, particularly Film Noir. (8) Other genres such as science fiction, action adventure, and drama draw upon this trope as well, some of them in unexpected ways. (9) Film, as a prominent cultural artifact, continually reinforces the notion that looking to the institutions of civil society as a path to attaining justice is at best naive, and at worst disastrous. (10) Western films are especially noteworthy in this regard, wherein the inability of law and the judicial system to maintain order and bring about justice is a recurrent motif. (11) In fact, the tension between this ineffectiveness on the part of legal institutions and the desire for justice on the part of principal characters is absolutely central to many of these movies. (12)

A recurring theme within the genre of Western films concerns the nature of the relationship between the protagonists who effect justice--or at least try to--and the legal and social establishment. Very often justice is brought about, can only be brought about, by those who are acting outside the bounds of official civil society. (13) These "legal outsiders" play an important part in the narratives of justice in American Westerns. (14) By legal outsider I mean characters that are not acting under the color of law: solitary souls who have their own checkered histories with the establishment, yet still maintain a deep and abiding personal sense of justice and fairness. By contrast, characters in Westerns that represent the established legal institutions of civil society invariably display characteristics that have nothing to do with justice: corruption, cowardice, decadence, moral ambivalence, physical infirmity, and weakness of spirit. (15) The hero in most Western films is not the sheriff, judge, or mayor, but is instead the quiet, solitary, and somewhat shady character that lives on the edge; literally (on the edge of town) and figuratively (being philosophically opposed to the establishment). If justice is to be had, it is this character that must bring it about. Characters who rely on the agents who represent the established institutions to help them in their quest for justice are portrayed as fools, and they usually get what they deserve for being so naive. (16) In American Western films, then, legal outsiders have a much closer association to justice than do the established legal officials. …

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