The U.S. Constitution is often depicted in popular films, teaching lessons about what this founding document means and what it requires. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington educates how a bill becomes a law. 12 Angry Men informs us about the rights of the accused. Selma explores the importance of civil rights, voting rights, and the freedom of speech. Lincoln shows us how to amend the Constitution. Not only have films like these been used to teach viewers about the Constitution; they also express the political beliefs of directors, producers, and actors, and they have been a reflection of what the public thinks generally, true or not, about the meaning of the Constitution. From the indictment of Warren Court rulings in Dirty Harry to the defense of the freedom of the press in All the President’s Men and The Post, filmmakers are often putting their stamp on what they believe the Constitution should mean and protect. These films can serve as a catalyst for nationwide conversations about the Constitution and as a way of either reinforcing or undermining the constitutional orthodoxies of their time. Put another way, these films are both symbols and products of the political tug of war over the interpretation of our nation’s blueprint for government and politics.
To the contemporary student and the casual reader, popular films serve as an understandable way to explain the Constitution. This book examines several different areas of the Constitution to illuminate how films in each area have tried to engage the document and teach the viewer something about it. We expose myths where they exist in film, draw conclusions about how Hollywood’s constitutional lessons have changed over time, and ultimately compare these films to what the Constitution says and how the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted it. Given the ever-present discussion of the Constitution in American politics and its importance to the structure of the U.S. government and citizens’ rights, there is no question that the popular perceptions of the document and how people acquire these perceptions are important and timely.
Eric T. Kasper is associate professor of the department of political science at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Quentin Vieregge is associate professor of English at UW-Eau Claire-Barron County
Ch. 1 Congress: “The Government’s Hands Are Tied”
Ch. 2 The Presidency: “I Will Shoulder All Responsibility”
Ch. 3 Supreme Court Justices and Federal Judges: “That’s Not the Way I Read the Law!”
Ch.4 The Freedom of and from Religion: “There Is No Contradiction between Faith and
Ch. 5 Science. . .True Science!”
Ch. 6 The Freedoms of Speech and Press: “The Supreme Court Has Roundly
Ch. 7 Rejected Prior Restraint!”
Ch. 8 The Right to Keep and Bear Arms: “You Can Get Further with a Kind Word and a Gun”
Ch. 9 The Rights of Criminal Suspects against Police: “We Need a Reason to Knock on this
Ch. 10 The Rights of the Criminally Accused in Court: “The Whole Trial Is out of Order!”
Ch. 11 The Rights of the Convicted: “What We’ve Got Here Is Failure to Communicate”
Ch. 12 Equal Protection of the Law: “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!”
Ch. 13 Freedom and the Right to Privacy: “The Only Privacy that’s Left Is the Inside of Your
Ch. 14 The Right to Vote: “It Was a War Long before We Got Here”
Part of Our National Culture: The U.S. Constitution in Film could be called “a film buff’s guide to the Constitution.” Each chapter is an in-depth essay on constitutional interpretation, illustrated with film plots, thus providing the reader with both an understanding of the Constitution’s complex meanings over time and of the ways films have supported or undermined different constitutional views. Many books have analyzed American films’ approach to Congress and the presidency, but few have also examined Hollywood’s views of gun rights, a free press, etc. Where else can one read a detailed examination of the application of the Exclusionary Rule in Dirty Harry?