The Accused: Seeking Justice and Confronting Prejudice

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Directed by Jonathan Kaplan the simultaneously provocative and gut wrenching courtroom drama film, “The Accused”, follows the immense struggle of a young woman; Sarah Tobias, played by Jodie Foster, in the justice system in an effort to find Justice after she is publicly gang-raped in a local tavern. Although it seems as a somewhat straightforward, open-and-shut case, there are complicating issues with regard to the character as well as the intent of the victim herself, inclusive of the culpability of the people who not only witnessed but also cheered during the assault; hence, doing nothing to stop the heinous actions of the perpetrators (Kaplan).    

Historical/ Political Context

Released during the late 20th century, the film’s plot or rather its context is typical to its time period, concerning this, the film was a result of increased conversation about sexual assault against women during the 1970s up to late 1990s which pervaded the public, political, as well as judicial arenas. Moreover, the film is based on a true story of Kelly McGillis who plays as Kathryn Murphy; Assistant District Attorney. Although the earliest efforts aimed at systematically confronting and rallying people against rape began as early as the 1870s with individual acts of resistance being witnessed throughout the first half of the 20th century, the most notable wave of anti-rape activities in the US; due to prevalence of the rape culture and rising number of forcible rape cases, began in the early 1970s; thus on the heels of the student, civil rights and feminist movements (Greensite). As a result of the second-wave feminists’ efforts; under movements such as the Women Liberation Movement, the first rape crisis centers were established in major cities as well as politically active towns such as Boston, Washington, and Chicago among others during the 1970s an example is the Seattle Rape Relief, Centre.

The centers were created in an effort to promote sensitivity and awareness of the issue, provide support for the victims; thus breaking the silence which had kept women away from the avenues of support and achieving justice. Creation of the centers also brought women into political activism while working towards reforming the country’s existing rape laws, some of the notable law reforms witnessed as a result of the movements included the rape shield laws that prevented the analysis of a victims past history during the perpetrator (s) trial. In addition, some of the notable events with regard to the social problem include rise in women marches such as the “take back the night” initiated in the late 1970s (Greensite). Therefore, the film “The accused” was as a result of increased public sensitization of the American rape culture during the 1970s and 80s.

Realist or Unrealistic Presentation Account of the Legal Process

To a great extent the film presents a realistic account of the legal process, this is due to the fact that it follows the prescribed procedure for any legal case including assault cases. The begins by the victim being examined by medical practitioner where evidence of the rape is collected and photographs taken to be used as evidence, the perpetrators are also apprehended but released on bail (Kaplan). After the case is presented to prosecutor; Kelly McGillis, her primary task; like in the case of a real-life situation, is to conduct preliminary investigations and present the case before a grand jury. The film also gives a realistic presentation of the legal process as lawyers, a jury, a judge as well as witnesses to the case are all incorporated into the film where they all play their respective roles as prescribed by the criminal justice system.

How the Law Works and the Portrayal of Changing Views of Morality

The film presents a unique understanding of how the law works through the main character Sarah Tobias. In the movie Tobias is presented as somewhat reckless and “immoral” due to her previous drug convictions as well as her overindulgence acts marked by excessive drinking, however, despite this, the film brings forward an understanding that she still has the right to say no as well as be heard; failure to which she has the right to seek justice in accordance to law. With regard to changing views of morality and how they affect the law, the film does not seem to reflect on any changing views (Kaplan).

Challenges Faced by Legal Actors

Challenges faced by legal actors in doing their job are primarily portrayed through the character Kelly McGillis; the assistant district attorney, in the film, one of the problems she experiences lack of cooperation from the witnesses such as the bartender; who are unwilling to talk. Another major problems faced by the prosecutor is lack of support from other legal actors in the judicial system (Kaplan). Concerning this, in the film, when McGillis decides to bring the perpetrators to trial, she lacks support from the Chief district attorney and most of her colleagues, according to the chief district attorney she is only supposed to try only those cases she can win and therefore, she should not look for lost causes.


In conclusion one of the major stereotypical view or beliefs presented in the film is the fact that a woman with loose morals is responsible for sexual assault. As a result, in the movie one the perpetrators blames Sarah Tobias for the rape as he asserts that “She asked for it!” despite Sarah verbally saying no, such stereotypical views are primarily responsible for the prevalence of the rape culture.


Works Cited

Greensite, G. “History of the Rape Crisis Movement”. California Coalition against Sexual Assault, (2009). Retrieved From:

Kaplan, Jonathan. “The Accused”. [Motion Pictures]. Paramount Pictures, 1988.

September 25, 2023

Crime Law

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