Monday, October 14, 2013

When Hollywood Acknowledged Rape

Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster): You don't understand how I feel! I'm standing there with my pants down and my crotch hung out for the world to see, and three guys are sticking it to me, a bunch of other guys are yelling and clapping, and you're standing there telling me that that's the best you can do. Well, if that's the best you could do, then your best sucks!

Thirty years ago, in 1983, the story of a woman who was raped repeatedly by a group of men while others looked on and cheered in a Massachusetts bar made national headlines.

I guess it was around that time that the pendulum on attitudes about rape in this country began to swing in a different direction. Before 1983, the prevailing attitude held that a woman brought such an attack on herself through her behavior and/or what she was wearing. (Actually, that continued to be the prevailing attitude after 1983, too — and, in some places, it remains the prevailing attitude, but not as many.)

It took five years, but the Massachusetts case forced Hollywood to deal with rape in a more direct manner than it ever really had before. Hence, "The Accused" premiered on this day in 1988. It wasn't a literal history of the 1983 case. Rather, it was a fictionalized account — and it was a story that, by 1988, movie audiences were ready to see.

Jodie Foster starred as the victim of a gang rape. The story that emerged was one of a young woman who had argued with her boyfriend, dressed provocatively, took some drugs and danced and flirted in a bar. This was the justification for three men raping her on a pinball machine (in real life, as I recall, it was a pool table).

The attorney who was assigned to the case (Kelly McGillis) wasn't happy about the assignment and wanted to drop it. Eventually, she entered a plea bargain that called for the rapists to serve some jail time for "reckless endangerment" — her thinking was that a defense attorney could use Foster's history against her and wind up getting all the attackers acquitted of a rape charge — but it wasn't enough for Foster's character, who felt cheated of the opportunity to tell her story in court.

At that point, Foster's character began to really engage in some reckless behavior. She plowed into a pickup truck — turned out the driver was one of the witnesses to the rape, and he propositioned her. She wound up in the hospital because of the collision, but she came out of it determined to bring charges against her rapists and those who had encouraged them.

And she persuaded McGillis' character to pursue justice with her.
"Mr. Paulsen has told you that the testimony of Sarah Tobias is nothing. Sarah Tobias was raped, but that is nothing. She was cut and bruised and terrorized, but that is nothing. All of it happened in front of a howling crowd, and that is nothing. Well, it may be nothing to Mr. Paulsen, but it is not nothing to Sarah Tobias, and I don't believe it is nothing to you. Next, Mr. Paulsen tried to convince you that Kenneth Joyce was the only one in that room who knew that Sarah Tobias was being raped — the only one!

"Now you watched Kenneth Joyce. How did he strike you? Did he seem especially sensitive, especially observant? Did he seem so remarkable that you said to yourselves, 'Of course! This man would notice things other people wouldn't.' Do you believe that Kenneth Joyce saw something in that room that those three men didn't see?"

Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis)

So McGillis brought charges of "criminal solicitation" against the witnesses who had cheered and encouraged the assault. It was a clever ploy, reminiscent of cases in the 1960s when murder charges weren't likely to succeed in most Deep South jurisdictions, and the best strategy for federal litigators was to charge participants with civil rights violations.
Kathryn Murphy: Listen again ... "A person is guilty of criminal solicitation if he commands, induces, entreats or otherwise persuades another person to commit a felony ..."

Paul Rudolph (Carmen Argenziano): You can read it to me until you're blue in the face, I am not gonna let you prosecute a bunch of spectators ...

Kathryn Murphy: They're not spectators. They solicited the rape.

Paul Rudolph: Do you really want to ask a jury to lock up a bunch of people for clapping and cheering?

Kathryn Murphy: Clapping? Cheering? Pushing? Goading? Getting the rape going and keeping it going!

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about a 1982 movie called "The Seduction," and the marketing of that movie tells you everything you really need to know about attitudes toward sexual assault and stalking roughly six years before "The Accused" hit the theaters.

I don't think anyone was killed in "The Seduction," but stalking was a prominent theme — even though I don't think the term was in use at that time — and implied in it was the threat of violence, even death. It was billed as an "erotic thriller," which is ironic, given that most women who have been stalked would say there was nothing erotic about it.

The same thinking has been applied to rape for generations. Truly awful behavior by men has been enabled by others who said the victim asked for it, or something similar. That attitude clearly influenced the initial treatment of Sarah Tobias' case in "The Accused." She had a checkered past, and the prosecution chose to pursue reckless endangerment instead of sexual assault in large part because of concern that the defense would pick away at her history, resulting, as I say, in acquittals.

Unfortunately, that probably was a realistic treatment of the deals that lawyers made all the time in those days. I covered the police and court beats for awhile, and I saw my share of deals being made. I knew what motivated lawyers then, and I am sure it motivates them now — the desire to win or, at least, to not lose or be perceived as having lost.

I could understand when I covered the police and the courts how ordinary people, unaccustomed to dealing with the legal system, could be confused, angry and frustrated by the routine maneuverings. And Sarah Tobias was frustrated when McGillis struck a deal to make sure the defendants would get some jail time. To McGillis, it was a victory to get something instead of nothing.

But it was obviously more than that to Sarah Tobias. She had been violated multiple times in front of a room full of strangers. She wanted a jury to hear her story, to know what she had suffered and to impose what she believed was an appropriate sentence.

I thought the movie was well done, and Foster won a much–deserved Best Actress Oscar for her performance. More than that, I thought "The Accused" was one of those significant movies that actually has an influence on cultural attitudes.

It made an important contribution to our growth as a nation.