Doing Justice

GenEd 0853


Movies and Possible Movie Assignments and/or Discussion Topics

If you want to use one or more of these movies and have them placed on reserve, then you will need to inform the library at the beginning of the semester. If you have questions about getting this done, contact Greg McKinney at Paley. All of these movies are currently held by Paley except for Banlieue 13.

Ideas for each film, and sometimes a "heads up" appear below.

In addition, a generic movie assignment paper topic has been prepared. CLICK HERE . The assignment asks students to link a specific part of one of these movies to a specific element in Black's framework.

I personally do NOT recommend showing any full movies in class. Rather, have the students watch the movies outside of class, and/or show short clips in class.


The movies listed below illustrate specific themes covered in this course. Some are documentaries, some are dramas, and two are dramas based closely on actual events. These movies allow you to see examples or scenarios set outside Philadelphia that may connect with the local incidents reviewed. Each listing includes:

Except for Banlieue 13, Paley has all of these; they may be on reserve for your course; check with your instructor

For more details on any of these films, go to the International Movie Data Base:

The List

Attica (1974) (documentary) (VHS)
Institution: Corrections
A dramatization of the days leading up to the Attica (1971) prison riot, the riot itself, and the ending. Based on Tom Wicker's factual account in his book A Time to Die. Much attention is given to the question of the legitimacy of the prisoners' demands, and the forces affecting State Commissioner Oswald which limited his possible responses. It is told from Wicker's perspective, and some may find this left leaning.

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) Early in the film the prisoners' make their demands known. What were these? Comment on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of these demands. (2) Later in the film Commissioner Oswald presents a list of the things he can do. a) Using the Paley database front end, search the NYT index and see if you can find this list. b) Using the same index, see if you can find Commissioner Oswald's obituary. c) Comment on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of what Oswald proposed. d) Can you explain, using Black's framework, why Oswald was not able to promise more? (3) The pressures on Oswald to respond harshly to what the prisoners had done was enormous. Can you explain using Black's framework, and focusing specifically on the inmates taking guards hostage and injuring one who ultimately died, why these pressures were so enormous.

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR. The several VHS copies the library has are of widely varying quality. They are all used. Be sure you do not get one that has a bad sound track.

Banlieue 13 (2004) (French with English subtitles) (English/Canadian version: District 13 or District B13)
Institution: Policing generally
This  near-future scenario introduced the world to the sport of urban running or parcours (
David Belle & Cyril Raffaelli are the runners). The plot is wacky involving ineffective police, drug lords, and a neutron bomb. Most relevant from the point of view of this course is how the police no longer police entire communities, having become largely ineffective, and ceding control to the mega drug lords. Raises interesting questions: when does drug dealing and wholesaling become so widespread and such a powerful political force that it can no longer be viewed as a serious crime?

Brute Force (1947)
Institution: Corrections
This drama stars Burt Lancaster and was directed by the famous French director Jules Dassin. Surprisingly realistic in its portrayal of extensive gang violence in large prisons at that time, the public pressures on prisons to keep things quiet and costs low, and the sometimes sadistic things guards will do to ensure things run smoothly. Very unrealistic in its portrayal of a bunch of good joes who just made a simple mistake and ended up in prison. Nevertheless, although it is at bottom a simple "prison break" movie, it provides a thoughtful albeit perhaps nihilistic view about the chances of having well run large prisons. Some may find the treatment left-leaning.

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) Why is it so hard to keep "order" in prisons? Why can't prisoners work? Why can't they learn skills? What does "the public" want from prisons? (2) In what ways are prisons today confronted with the same issues depicted in the film? In what ways have the issues changed?

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR:  (1) The episode when the politician is having a conference with the warden, the doctor, and the head guard, is priceless, and could be used as a good in-class clip to get discussion started. Again, it raises the question: So, how much have things changed? (2) You may want to compare to "Riot in Cell Block 11." They get at different angles.

Dead End (1937) with Humphrey Bogart
Institution: Juvenile Reform Schools
This drama, based on the award winning Broadway play scripted by Lillian Hellman, depicts the end of a street in a rundown tenement on the East Side of Manhattan at a time when gentrification was forcing the rich to rub elbows with the very poor. The main story line is about a young kid who cannot stay out of trouble, despite his older sister's best efforts, and what happens when a hood who grew up in the neighborhood returns. Most relevant for the course theme is what happens when the Dead End Kids beat up a rich kid, and the kid's father gets the police after the culprit(s).

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) What are the different views about the incident where the rich kid gets beaten up? Who sees it as the most serious? Who sees it as the least serious? What would Black's model have to say about the factors driving those different viewpoints? (2) Describe the different views about the planned street fight discussed early in the film, and the group beating later. What would Black have to say about these differences? (3) What are the pressures on the beat police officer after the group beating takes place?

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR. (1) Some may see this as left leaning. (2) The clip right around the time Tommy gets taken into custody may be useful as a standalone clip if students are given the background.

Dirty Harry (1971) with Clint Eastwood, directed by Don Siegel
Institution: Police and the courts (the latter around search and seizure)
When Clint Eastwood was finished with spaghetti westerns, he started a series of Dirty Harry movies. This is the first. The main plot line is simply: there is a serial sniper on the loose in San Francisco, at a time when the courts in the U.S. and perhaps especially in San Francisco where this was shot cared more about the rights of criminals than the rights of victims. Harry is on it, and when a woman has been kidnapped and may be dying he steps it up, finds the guy, finds the incriminating evidence, and brings it all in, the suspect a bit worse for wear. But then he finds the evidence won't stand up in court. Hmm...

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) When public pressure on police to solve a crime is extremely strong, as is true in a high profile case such as described here, how does that change how police treat suspects? How would Black explain this altered treatment?

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR (1) Some may see this as right leaning. (2) If used, it probably would be helpful to provide the students with some background about the Warren Court and some of its major rulings in the 1960s, including Miranda v. Arizona.

Ghosts of Attica (2001) (documentary)
Institution: Corrections
Offers an account of America's most violent prison rebellion, its suppression, and the days of torture that ensued. Uses newly uncovered video of the assault, interviews with eyewitnesses who've never spoken before on camera, and footage of inmates and hostages throughout their battles against the state. This film unravels a deep cover-up, and shows how the riot transformed the lives of its survivors. Includes interviews with former inmate, Frank "Big Black" Smith, former guard Mike Smith, and others.

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) This documentary is about the prisoners who were abused during and after the Attica riot seeking redress. It took them decades to get it. How would Black explain why it took them so long? (2) There are some interesting discussions about the guards' points of view. What would Black say about the relative seriousness of the injuries experienced by the guards compared to those experienced by the inmates?

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR (1) Some may see this as left leaning. (2) The documentary does provide some background about the actual riot, but it is spotty. The focus here is on what happened after. Strongly suggest giving the students a clear source about what happened at Attica.

Magnum Force (1973) with Clint Eastwood
Institution: Police
Less realistic than "Dirty Harry." Assumes a band of California Highway Patrol have gone rogue, and are meting out vigilante justice. Harry takes care of them.
Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1)
NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR: (1) Students probably need some background on the 1960s Warren Court and its emphasis on suspect protections. (2) Politically this is pretty ambivalent. Although the rogue officers are painted as budding fascists, there do seem to be sympathies with their frustrations.(3) Strongly recommend Dirty Harry over this one.

Private Hell 36 (1954) with Ida Lupino and directed by Don Siegel
Institution: Police, and their temptations to corruption
Two officers, one married with a kid, another single, impetuous and willing to cut corners, get assigned to a counterfeit case where Ida Lupino holds the key. They find the guy, they chase, he cracks up, the fake money spills out and... the police get some ideas. Conflict develops between the two. Realistic portrayal of the difficulties of making a go of it on a police salary when all the rest of (white) America was getting ahead in the highly materialistic 1950s. Lousy pay and you get shot at a lot and your buddies die, but they don't expect you to pick up hot bills?

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) Do you think crimes committed by police officers are more serious than crimes committed by ordinary citizens, regardless of who the target is? What would Black say about this?

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR: (1) This might be a good movie for the students to watch while the 1928 corruption probe is being discussed. It makes the temptations to corruption a bit more plausible. Of course, there are tons more and more recent police corruption films done. What makes this one worthwhile is the way the pressures on the two officers build, and the clear connections between their characters, built scene by scene, comment by comment, and their reactions to the situation. Ida Lupino is great as always. (2) Students will need to be exposed to the "extension" of the Black model to victimless crimes. See Black Student Readers' Guide.

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
Institution: Corrections
Prison administrators try to work with prisoner who has valuable information. It all goes horribly wrong.

Serpico (1973) with Al Pacino
Institution: Police and corruption
Based on the real case of Frank Serpico, NYPD, who exposed widespread corruption in his department, and was forced to pay for it.

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) The police officers don't think they are committing serious crimes when they are ripping off drug dealers and/or extorting funds from criminals. How does Black explain these perceptions?

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR: (1) This might be a good movie for the students to watch while the 1928 corruption probe is being discussed. It makes the temptations to corruption a bit more plausible.  (2) Could be combined with a library research/skills building exercise where they use the Paley NYT front end to find Serpico articles. (3) Students will need to be exposed to the "extension" of the Black model to victimless crimes. See Black Student Readers' Guide.

Thunder Road (1958) with Robert Mitchum
Institution: Law Enforcement and victimless crime (moonshining)
Written and directed by Mitchum. Co-starring his son. Moonshiners in backwoods NC/TN are getting squeezed on one side by organized crime moving into the area, and on the other by Federal ATF agents.  Still people decide how to fight it. Guess who dies?

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) Do the moonshiners see what they are doing as criminal or not? Why or why not? How about the Federal agents? (2) How if at all does the  Black toolbox apply to the actions of the Feds? Be clear about what specific features of the moonshiners are relevant to Black's toolbox.

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR: (1) This movie is quite realistic in its setup. This really was going on in backwoods NC, TN, and KY at this time. (2) The film shows whites firmly committed to vice crimes for sound economic reasons. This makes a refreshing contrast with urban drug markets. (3) Students will need to be exposed to the "extension" of the Black model to victimless crimes. See Black Student Readers' Guide. (4) It is easy to make fun of the rural hoe downs and one tooth wonders and tobaccy spittin which crops up from time to time.

The Wrong Man (1956) with Henry Fonda, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Institution: Police and treatment of suspects
This is the only non-fictional film Hitchcock ever did. Based on an actual incident in Brooklyn where a bass player at the Stork Club in NYS, Manny Balustrero, is taken into custody as a suspect for a series of armed holdups, and incriminates himself. This was pre-Miranda v. Arizona. Highly realistic. Shot on location in Brooklyn. They even opened up the courthouse for the filming. Fonda actually learned to play double bass so he could play in the opening scene. The way this blue collar, stable family comes completely undone because of a case of mistaken identity is troubling.

Possible paper questions and/or in class discussion questions: (1) When the police first pick up Manny, how do they categorize him, in terms of Black's categories? How does this shape their treatment of him? (2) Were you surprised in how high the "cost" was to Manny and his family for this simple case of mistaken identity?

NOTE TO INSTRUCTOR: (1) A good clip to show in class is when the police first pick Manny up, through when they have him take a tour of the stick up sites. (2) Students will need to know this was pre-Miranda.