When done right, the courtroom drama is one of the most intensely gripping sub-genres to grace the silver screen. Courtroom movies really do have it all: passionate yelling, epic declarations, tearful confessions and shocking twists, and the conventions traverse a range of genres, from comedy to horror.
Released this January, Just Mercy takes us back into the dramatic world of judges and lawyers as it tells the true story of Walter McMillian, a condemned death row prisoner who, with the help of young defence attorney Bryan Stevenson, appeals his murder conviction. The film is based on the memoir of the same name, written by Bryan Stevenson.
The film stars the very talented pair of Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx as Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillian respectively, and is sure to be quite the dramatic courtroom experience. In anticipation, here are seven other courtroom dramas that were found guilty of being great.
1. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Those of you who’ve served on jury duty will recognise the claustrophobia and pressure of Sidney Lumet’s groundbreaking drama. Largely confined to one location, whose walls imperceptibly close in as the narrative proceeds, it’s the story of a group of male jurors tasked with convicting or aqcuitting an 18-year-old defendant.
But the court case is just part of it: the real heart of the drama comes as the jurors question themselves and their own moral values. With a fabulous cast led by a career-best Henry Fonda, Lumet’s Oscar-nominated movie set the standard for all others in this field.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
The most powerful courtroom summation in movie history comes from lawyer Atticus Finch in this classic adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel. As embodied by a peerless Gregory Peck, the noble Atticus is a non-judgmental voice of reason and compassion in a small American town riven by racism and prejudice.
The movie hits its emotional peak when Atticus addresses the court in the case of Tom Robinson, a black man who has been unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Peck’s delivery and the absence of melodrama in the scene (there’s no accompanying music) enhances the sense of realism, and although the outcome is ultimately crushing, we know that his words will radiate beyond the court, into the lives of his children Scout and Jem.
3. My Cousin Vinny (1992)
This courtroom comedy won actress Marisa Tomei (Spider-Man: Far From Home) an Academy Award, and is often hailed as one of the most accurate movies in terms of the portrayal of legal procedure.
The film begins with two young New Yorkers who are accused of murder in rural Alabama while on their way back from college. Thankfully one of them has a cousin who just so happens to be a lawyer… unfortunately he is loud-mouthed, foul-language spouting and inexperienced, and is played by Joe Pesci.
My Cousin Vinny is hilarious throughout, with the interplay between Pesci and Tomei being an obvious highlight, aside of course from the often funny, always dramatic, moments in the courtroom.
4. A Few Good Men (1992)
Featuring one of Tom Cruise’s stand-out early performances, A Few Good Men is so chock full of iconic courtroom moments that it would take a court stenographer several days to type them out. The film follows Cruise’s Daniel Kaffee, a US military lawyer, who takes on the defence of two US marines charged with murdering a fellow marine at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
Suspicion quickly falls on Jack Nicholson’s aggressively charismatic Colonel Jessup, and it culminates not only in the kind of emotional courtroom scene that makes the genre so memorable, but in one of the most dramatic moments in cinematic history.
5. A Time to Kill (1996)
Long before the much-celebrated ‘McConaissance’, Matthew McConaughey put in a memorable performance in courtroom crime drama A Time to Kill, based on John Grisham's book.
In 1980s Mississippi, a fearless young lawyer and his assistant come to the defence of Carl, a black man accused of murdering the two white men who raped his ten-year old daughter. The film tackles racism, inequality, revenge and justice, as McConaughey must navigate through this highly emotive case. A Time to Kill once again demonstrates the explosive drama that goes on within the stuffy walls of the courtroom, and lands a final gut-punch in McConaughey’s brutal closing statement.
6. The Rainmaker (1997)
One of the roles that shot Matt Damon into the upper echelons of Hollywood, The Rainmaker is also based on a book by John Grisham, and tells the true story of a young, underdog lawyer who agrees to stand up for a boy suffering from leukaemia when his claim is denied by a fraudulent insurance company.
With an all-star cast that includes Jon Voight, Claire Danes and Danny DeVito, The Rainmaker is a harrowing story, and one that you may struggle to believe really happened. Damon’s character uses every legal trick he can muster to prove that, in the courtroom, the little guy can win.
7. Find Me Guilty (2006)
The courtroom flick Find Me Guilty has two selling points: it is another courtroom comedy-drama from Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet, and it stars Vin Diesel with hair. Diesel stars as low-level gangster Jackie DiNorscio who is arrested in a drugs case and sentenced to 30 years in jail. He unexpectedly decides to defend himself, despite having no legal background or any real knowledge of how to proceed.
What follows is a portrayal of what turned out to be the longest criminal trial in American judicial history. Diesel’s role is far-removed from the action genre with which he is associated, and the actor gives a funny, endearing, sincere performance that is well worth watching.
Jon Fuge is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.