Year in Review: The Law in Pop Culture

December 25, 2014

In a year dominated by True Detective and Serial fandom, it’s easy to forget that pop culture and the law intersect outside of the true crime genre. Whether exploring the American justice system, family law, or the lives of corporate lawyers, artists often rely on the law and lawyers as a lens through which to comment on society. Here are our picks for the best culture about the law in 2014.

Art: “Night and Day,” a Chris Ofili retrospective at the New Museum in New York (through Jan. 15, 2015). It was a great year for retrospectives of previously controversial artists. Earlier this year, the Whitney hosted a Jeff Koons exhibit, featuring several of his pieces that had been the subject of copyright lawsuits. In October, the New Museum opened its retrospective of Young British Artist, Chris Ofili. Ofili was caught up in an obscenity battle in the Nineties when his painting, “Holy Virgin Mary,” was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. Because the piece used elephant dung in its depiction of the Virgin Mary, Mayor Rudy Giuliani dubbed it “obscene” and stripped The Brooklyn Museum of its public funding. The museum fought back, eventually regaining its funding in a lawsuit against the city for violating the First Amendment. Night and Day presents “Holy Virgin Mary” for the first time in the United States since the incident. The exhibit also showcases Ofili’s other socially relevant work — “No Woman No Cry” is a painting inspired by the accidental police shooting death of London teenager Stephen Lawrence. His new series, Blue Devils, shows the tension between black men and the police in Trinidad, where he now lives.

Books: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is, at base, a reflection on justice in America. Although ostensibly a book-length poem, Rankine’s prose reads more like a series of short essays. She uses second-person voice to invoke the feeling of being an outsider in American society. One passage reads, “When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no, she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.” In segments titled, “In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” “Stop-and-Frisk,” and “The Justice System,” Rankine exposes disparate treatment within the criminal justice system. In “Stop-and-Frisk,” she writes, “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” Citizen may be just the book to help us process the traumatic events of 2014.

Film: Like Father, Like Son, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. In a year filled with the usual Hollywood blockbusters, this little-seen Japanese film about a custody battle was a more subtle treat. Ryota and Midorino Nonomiya learn that their son Keita was switched at birth with another boy. The Nonomiyas have raised their son to be like his father: diligent, cautious, well-groomed and polite. Their biological son, by contrast, goes by the name Ryusei and has been raised by a noodle-shop owner and his wife in a raucous household with multiple children. The Nonomiyas take the devastating news quietly. As a man of action, Ryota decides to take the next logical step to resolve what he sees as a straightforward problem — gaining custody of both his biological son and Keito. He wields Japanese law against Ryusei’s parents, arguing that his wealth can provide a better life for both boys. The default rules, by contrast, would have the families switch the boys. As the parents struggle to find a solution, they discover uglier sides of themselves and question their own validity as parents. Like Father, Like Son is now streaming on Netflix.

Theater: Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, playing at the Lyceum Theater. Disgraced arrived on Broadway this fall to high expectations after a successful off-Broadway debut in 2012 and Pulitzer Prize win in 2013. The new production exceeds all expectations. Asking whether modern American life and Islam are fundamentally at odds, Disgraced is more relevant now than ever. Amir (Hari Dhillon) is a confident corporate lawyer. Born to Pakistani-American parents and raised Muslim, he has since rejected Islam, summing up the Quran as “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.” But when Amir’s nephew, Hussein, asks him to support the Imam at a local mosque accused of funding terrorism, Amir acquiesces. He soon regrets his decision, worrying that the Jewish partners of his firm froze him out due to his support of the Imam. Amir’s concerns come to a head during a dinner party his wife (Gretchen Mol) throws for Amir’s colleague Jory (Karen Pittman) and her husband Isaac (Josh Radnor). Isaac throws the first punch by questioning whether there is a difference between Islam and Islamo-fascism. The heated dinner is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as tempers increase with inebriation, culminating in a shocking climax.

TV: The Good Wife, Sundays on CBS. As mentioned here before, women lawyers are enjoying a moment in television. The Good Wife, the oldest of the recent wave of women-led shows, is improving with age. The sixth season, which premiered this fall, explores difficult questions of legal ethics and corruption in politics. This season turns the tables on its characters by placing Alicia Florrick’s partner, Carey Agos, at the center of criminal case for helping his client smuggle drugs. Since I’ve written about The Good Wife before, I’ll take the time to discuss an honorable mention, Black Mirror. While only indirectly about the law and lawyers, this British show satirizes society by inventing new technology in each standalone episode and imagining the ways we would react to it. One of its best episodes, “The Entire History of You,” is set in a Britain where everyone has a chip stored behind their ear that records everything they see. People can “redo” any experience by replaying the video of their memory. Liam, a corporate lawyer, becomes obsessed with his wife’s interaction with a former flame. He redoes the interaction many times, forcing his wife and other acquaintances to evaluate it. His wife asks, “Why am I on trial here?” We realize, in a world where all experiences are recorded, all of life is a trial. Black Mirror is streaming on Netflix.