University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Programs & Centers

What Documentary Films Teach Us about the Criminal Justice System

Dialogues Among Filmmakers, Formerly Incarcerated Persons,
Service Providers, Law Teachers and Law Students
Feb. 29-March 1, 2008

Film has the power to shape public perceptions about the criminal justice system.  An early example is Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 film classic, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, about a man unfairly convicted of robbery and sentenced to serve on a brutal southern prison chain gang.  The film, one of the first social reform movies produced by Warner Brothers during the 1930s, was based on a true story by Robert Elliott Burns. The public shock and outrage about the incidents portrayed in Chain Gang and others films released around the same time ultimately resulted in abolition of prison chain gangs.

LeRoy’s film was a fictional account of the criminal justice system, but documentary films have even more power to influence the public and result in reform. As John Grierson, who coined the term “documentary” in 1926 notes, the documentary is an aesthetically satisfying “creative treatment of actuality” with “a clearly defined social purpose.” Grierson’s definition suggests why documentary treatment of the criminal justice system warrants closer examination. The classic documentary conveys an air of objective and transparent representation using voiceover commentary with descriptive and informative images. In documentaries without voice narration the filmmaker’s goal is to simply observe unfolding events. But other documentary forms are more problematic.

There is an ongoing debate between documentarists and critics about “the legitimacy of certain techniques in shaping of the documentary account.”Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), perhaps one of the most widely shown and controversial documentary films, illustrates one aspect of this debate. At least one scholar has called the film an anti-documentary because Morris mixes fiction and reality giving the viewer an “impenetrable commingling of fiction and reality….representations no longer need to be rooted in reality. It is sufficient for images simply to reflect other images.» Thus The Thin Blue Line is not an objective documentary in any sense of the term.  It is clear from the beginning that the filmmaker is arguing for the innocence of Randall Dale Adams, the man convicted of Wood’s murder– and it worked.

The Conference
This day and a half conference extends these discussions to more recent documentaries that focus on prison and post-prison life:  Girlhood, Omar and Pete, and The Farm. These films, all of which received vast critical acclaim, illuminate the struggles of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.  Among the themes gleaned from these films are: race and poverty, drug addiction, violence, faults in the legal system, brotherhood, sisterhood, post-release struggles, redemption, and the effects of incarceration and release on families and communities.

The conference consist of a series of dialogues, among filmmakers, formerly incarcerated individuals, service providers, law teachers and law students.  These dialogues will address the foregoing themes, but from the different vantages and perspectives offered by individuals with direct experience in the criminal justice system, the individuals who work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, the filmmakers who seek to both tell and interpret stories through documentaries, law teachers who use these documentaries (and others) to reach pedagogical goals, and law students who take away certain lessons from these films.  The dialogical format will give all of these individuals the opportunity to talk to one another and to the public at large hopefully exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system.

Short essays from the symposium will be published in the University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. Paper deadline is April 1, 2008.

Professors Taunya Lovell Banks and Michael Pinard organized this program. Support has been provided by a generous grant from the France-Merrick Foundation to the University of Maryland School of Law's Linking Law & the Arts Series.

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500 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1786 PHONE: (410) 706-7214 FAX: (410) 706-4045 / TDD: (410) 706-7714

Admissions: PHONE: (410) 706-3492 FAX: (410) 706-1793

Copyright © 2018, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved