Legal dramas provide audiences the opportunity to enter the world of the courtroom in addition to dramatized emotions as reflected by the characters (typically the lawyer and juries) of the film. The Post-Classical era film 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) and the Post-Modernist film A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher, 1996) consist of a goal-driven protagonist finding the truth and meaning in societal paradoxes while overcoming strong adversity. However, the legal drama genre shift between the Post-Classical and Post-Modernist eras (as seen in the two films) from a character-driven genre to an expository-character genre is attributed to the paranoia brought on by forces such as McCarthyism in the 1950’s and America’s internal conflicts and mistrust of the government in the 1990’s.
The drama genre goes back to the early nineteenth century and lays the foundation for character and plot as reflected in legal dramas of today. “The proper fate for the dramatic hero or heroine was to learn Christian resignation by preserving moral purity in the face of great trials and tribulations,” (Cawelti 38). The idea of good versus evil, right versus wrong, stemmed from the belief that to be “good” was having a strong faith in God and the resultant courage to act on one’s good intentions. This genre myth carried over to the middle of the twentieth century and served as the basis of the first legal dramas. However, Cawlti states, the emphasis on God were taken out of the moral equation to “seek for other means of affirming transcendent moral truths in secular, naturalist world,” (47).
Regardless of the inclusion or exclusion of God in the dramatic genre myth, the consistency of the main protagonist “doing the right thing” and “fighting the injustices of the world” was (and continues to be) a driving force of legal drama narratives. Films that come before or after the Post-Classical era, such Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Runaway Jury, all support this myth. The strong emphasis on emotions and inner suffering due to societal injustice rings true throughout the genre. This myth allows the audience to become emotionally in the story from the outset as they form expectations based on other legal dramas they have seen in the past, enhancing the overall appeal of the genre.
The drama’s core foundation of an individual fighting to preserve moral purity was a key element in the legal drama during the 1950’s and this tradition carries on today. In both 12 Angry Men and A Time to Kill, the two male protagonists must make the “morally right” decision regardless of the opposition’s attempt to bully them into compromising their principals in favor of the establishment. This idea of “moral purity” reflects the 1950’s ideology that “money and success were important values; that heterosexual romance, marriage, and the family were proper social forms,” (Cawelti 212). Furthermore, Cawelti’s idea that “the state, police, and legal system were...