With the sad death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a look at the portrayal of the US Supreme Court and its Justices on celluloid.
There’s plenty to choose from, with an increasing number produced over recent years, as the Supreme Court has become the crucible for the ever more polarising Culture Wars in the US.
Back in 1981 – and broadcast (accident or design?) by nostalgia channel Talking Pictures on Sunday evening (20th September), First Monday in October presented the fictional appointment of the first female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (Jill Clayburgh). The wind was rather taken out of the picture’s sails by Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor a month before the release of the movie.
Without further ado – eight factually-based movies based on the lives of eventual Justices and some of the historic decisions taken by the Supreme Court.
On the Basis of Sex (2018) – Amazon Prime
Mimi Leder’s recent biopic of RBG’s early career in the law and the landmark 1970 Moritz v. Commissioner tax law sex discrimination case perhaps ironically concerned a man, rather than a woman.
Felicity Jones (Rogue One) earned plaudits in the role of Bader Ginsburg, ably supported by a cast that included Armie Hammer (as RBG’s husband Martin), Kathy Bates, Justin Theroux, and Sam Waterston.
Some may see echoes of director Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind, Judgement at Nuremburg) in the picture’s rather old-fashioned air.
For a broader perspective on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career the same year’s documentary RGB (Netflix) is worth seeking out.
Marshall (2017) – Amazon Rent/Buy
The late Chadwick Boseman essayed a fine performance as young defence attorney Thurgood Marshall, who was to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice.
Based on one of Marshall’s first cases, the movie will remind some viewers of Norman Jewison’s classic In the Heat of the Night (1967), with Boseman as a less strait-laced Sidney Poitier, although easily his equal in charisma.
Director Reginald Hudlin delivers a thought-provoking and entertaining movie, making sure the proceedings are leavened with enough humour to ease the action along. Cast members also include Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, and James Cromwell.
The Post (2017) – Amazon Rent/Buy
In this companion piece to All The President’s Men (1976) we follow the events surrounding the controversial publication of the classified Vietnam War-related Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post in 1971 and the Supreme Court First Amendment decision in the paper’s favour.
Some fine acting by Tom Hanks as Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as owner Katherine Graham, but to my mind The Post never really achieves lift-off in terms of viewer engagement.
Loving (2016) – Amazon Rent/Buy
This moving biographical romantic drama tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned state laws against interracial marriage.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton co-star as Mildred (née Jeter) and Richard Loving, a Virginia couple arrested and briefly jailed for the crime of being married as a (respectively) black and white couple.
Strong performances from the leads and a typically intense turn from Marton Csokas (The Debt) as the couple’s nemesis, racist Sheriff Garnett R. Brooks.
Confirmation (2016) – Amazon Rent/Buy
This HBO movie details the controversial events surrounding the appointment of Clarence Thomas in 1991 to the Supreme Court.
Thomas is accused of sexual harassment by former employee Law Professor Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear).
Biden (as played by Kinnear) doesn’t come across particularly well, and the actor’s recent performance as an insincere Bob Hope in this year’sMisbehaviour could colour viewers opinions of his take on the politician.
Kerry Washington as Hill shines, whilst Wendell Pierce captures Thomas’s self-righteous and permanently aggrieved air.
Anita Hill has since endorsed Biden, who in 2019 apologised for his perceived mishandling of the hearings.
Woman in Gold (2015) – Amazon Rent/Buy
In this true story, Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an ageing former Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles, who, with lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), took on the Austrian government to recover Klimt’s iconic painting of her aunt, the Woman in Gold of the picture’s title (actual name The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I)
Stolen by the Nazis in Vienna before WWII and post conflict displayed in the prestigious Belvedere Museum, the theft of the painting eventually prompted Altmann to take the fight to the Supreme Court of the United States, which backed her claim in 2004.
Although Mirren’s performance was praised, reviews were mixed, some reviewers feeling that director Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin) could have made much more of the story.
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013) – Amazon Buy Only
Stephen Frears directed this behind-the-scenes story of Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Vietnam War, with the ensuing legal wrangling and final Supreme Court ruling for him in 1971.
Ali only appears in news footage, with the acting honours going to the thesping star power of Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella and Danny Glover as Justices John Marshall Harlan II, Warren E. Burger, and the older Thurgood Marshall.
Nuremberg (2000) – YouTube (free)
TNT’s lengthy TV movie depicts the events of the Nuremberg trials of the surviving top Nazi leaders, headed by Brian Cox as the crafty and amoral Hermann Göring, who initially outwits Allied chief prosecutor U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (Alec Baldwin).
With the help of Christopher Plummer (again) as fellow prosecutor Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, Jackson eventually out manoeuvres Göring, using searing witness testimony and documentary footage of the horrors of the concentration camps, rather than his previous dry recitation of facts.
If this selection has whetted your appetite for more dramas at least partly based on Supreme Court cases, you may wish to check out some less recent pictures, including Amistad, The People vs Larry Flynt (both 1997), Separate but Equal (1991), Roe Vs Wade (1989) and Gideon’s Trumpet (1980).