JOHN Grisham is no doubt the number one novelist in the legal thriller genre. A number of his novels have been made into films including “The Firm,” “A Time to Kill” and “The Rainmaker.” While his writings may be fiction, these mirror the realities of the work and challenges of lawyers.
But there have been few legal thriller films in recent times. Luckily, two movies on lawyers were released in 2019. These were “Just Mercy” and “Dark Waters.” What distinguished these from Grisham adapted films is that these involved real-life legal professionals who fought for the rights of the oppressed despite the odds.
“Just Mercy” is based on the memoir of Harvard-educated Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), an African-American lawyer, who founded Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit institution that provided legal representation to death row inmates in Alabama. He took on the case of Walter McMillan who was convicted of murdering a white woman and fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Alabama seeking a retrial as the conviction of his client was supported by a testimony of a convicted felon who later recanted. It wasn’t just the bias against his client, being black, that he experienced, but also indignities slapped on him by those in authority. Not only was he able to free McMillan from death row, through EJI, Stevenson has saved 125 men from the death penalty.
“Dark Waters” is about lawyer Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) who battled chemical giant DuPont whose plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, contaminated the water system that caused not only deaths to residents, but also impacted on livestock. For 20 years, he fought what seemed a hopeless cause that had an effect on his family, his colleagues in the law firm and his personal safety and health. Through dedicated work and thorough research, he discovered that DuPont used PFOA, a perfluorooctanoic acid, in the manufacture of Teflon in nonstick pans. The company knew about the danger of the chemical, but continued using this, not only affecting employees, but by dumping the waste in the waterways that seeped into the drinking water of residents. After years of legal battle, DuPont settled the class suit brought by Bilott for $671 million. Presently, he has expanded his fight against 3M and DuPont “in behalf of a nationwide class of everyone in the United States.”
There are many good causes that lawyers can fight for in the present day, but only few would dare take the challenge. Stevenson and Bilott are among the few real-life hero lawyers. I have yet to see a Filipino film about lawyers who made a difference. I’d like to see a motion picture about the lives of Hilario Davide Jr. and Antonio Oposa that would culminate in adoption of the doctrine of Intergenerational Responsibility on the environment; or Jose W. Diokno and the Stonehill scandal that brought about the downfall of the Diosdado Macapagal presidency; or the fight for human rights by Alfonso Surigao who was murdered for his work.