AJFF What to Watch: Films About Courtroom Drama


The quest for justice and sometimes even the legal system itself is on trial in these courtroom dramas. Several films have been formerly featured at AJFF's annual festival. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

An Act of Defiance
A gutsy lawyer risks career and family to defend Nelson Mandela and his inner circle, in this historical thriller set in South Africa’s incendiary segregation era. Mandela and nine other defendants, including Jewish anti-Apartheid fighters, faced a possible death sentence after their arrest during a summer 1963 raid. Sympathetic white Afrikaner lawyer Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), defends the activists against charges of conspiracy to commit sabotage and treason. As he fights to expose South Africa’s corrupt, unjust system, Fischer attempts to hide his own ties to the resistance. This riveting drama expertly combines nail-biting political and courtroom intrigue to explore South Africa’s seminal struggle against racism, and the little-known Jewish figures who sought to end entrenched discrimination in their country. Featured at the 2018 AJFF.

Based on the acclaimed book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, the film recounts Emory College of Arts and Sciences and frequent AJFF guest, Deborah Lipstadt’s, as played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, played by Timothy Spall, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, in cases of libel, the burden of proof is on the defendant, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team, led by Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson, to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
An emotionally shackled Israeli woman seeks divorce from her suffocating spouse and archaic judges in this drama featured at the 2015 AJFF. This dissolution of a turbulent Moroccan-Jewish marriage is the closing chapter of a trilogy started a decade ago by sibling writer-directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The hothouse drama unfolds in the confines of the courtroom, as the grueling – and at times grotesquely comical – legal proceedings of Viviane (a tour-de-force performance by Ronit Elkabetz) and Elisha Amsalem (Simon Abkarian) drag on for years. Lawyers and witnesses are asked to provide evidence as grounds for granting the divorce, which requires both rabbinic approval and the husband's full consent. As humiliating postponements threaten to deny her dignity and freedom, Viviane's impatience erupts in a shattering denouement.

The Life of Emile Zola
This 1937 American biographical film about 19th-century centers on French author Émile Zola. After emerging as a struggling writer, author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) wins success writing about the unsavory side of Paris and settles into a comfortable upper-class life. However, his complacency is shaken when Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is imprisoned for being a spy. Realizing that Dreyfus is an innocent victim of anti-Semitism, Zola pens a newspaper article that exposes the truth is charged with libel and must defend himself in a dramatic courtroom testimony. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

After killing a client in self-defense, call girl Claudia Draper (Barbra Streisand) works to prove that she is sane enough to stand trial to avoid being declared mentally incompetent and put away in a mental institution. Lawyer Aaron Levinsky (Richard Dreyfuss) reluctantly takes on Claudia's case and tries to prove that she's not crazy, but the volatile prostitute doesn't make his task easy. Based on the play of the same name.

RBG celebrates the breathtaking legacy and personal life of a feminist hero, quiet warrior and one of the most influential jurists in American history. Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a force for social change and champion of equal rights during her rise to the U.S. Supreme Court. This intimate, moving portrait charts the spry octogenarian's extraordinary journey, from her humble beginnings growing up poor in Brooklyn, to the romance of her enduring marriage, the landmark cases that defined her career, and her unlikely status as a pop culture superhero. This energetic, fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing documentary is a loving tribute to a brilliant legal mind who continues to fight the good fight, while inspiring those who wish to follow in her footsteps.

Where's My Roy Cohn?
Considered one of the most controversial and influential American men of the 20th Century, Roy Cohn was a ruthless and unscrupulous lawyer and political power broker whose 28-year career ranged from acting as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist-hunting subcommittee to shaping the career of a young Queens real estate developer named Donald Trump. The film's name is reported to be a quote from President Donald Trump, as he discussed Attourney General Jeff Sessions's recusal from the Mueller Investigation.