Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Every generation has improved the American judicial system. The laws are based on the same principles as a hundred years ago, but have increased to give the guilty party the benefit of the doubt and a fighting chance. Our system is also no longer ruled by racism, a feat that was not true at the Court-martial of Johnson Whittaker in 1886. The film is based on trial transcripts from the era, and pits two attorneys against the system in an attempt to free a negro cadet from being dishonorably discharged from the military.
When a journalist is sent to the home of Johnson Whittaker to learn his feelings about the protests and cross-burnings of the white racists in the area, he learns instead the intimate details surrounding a trial some forty years earlier at West Point. Whittaker (Seth Gilliam) has been accused of assaulting himself in an attempt to disgrace his fellow cadets and cover up the fact that he is about to fail one of his required studies. Called in to represent him at the resulting court martial trial is Daniel Chamberlain (Sam Waterston), one of the most respected men of his profession. Co-council consists of black attorney and Harvard man Richard Greener (Samuel Jackson). There are immediately sparks of dislike between council, but they put up a formidable offense against the appointed prosecutor (John Glover).
Chamberlain refuses to bring up the issue of Whittaker's skin color at court, something Greener adamantly opposes. The Civil War has not long been over and the negro population is struggling to maintain equality in a civilization that strongly opposes them. Racism is either blatant in the individuals called to the stand, or concealed behind pretty speeches and charming smiles. The charges are that Whittaker tied himself to a bed, cut his own ears so they bled, and then smashed a mirror onto his forehead, resulting in his loss of consciousness. The ludicrous nature of the charges become a battle of wills between prosecutors, with the defense falling apart through personal rivalries. The film is not so much a compelling story as it is a piece of history reenacted, and one that will give a shocking glimpse into the racism of the times.
Audiences will lift their eyebrows at the extremes both the prosecution and defense go to in court, as well as the arguments raised about whether or not black individuals are intelligent enough to pull off such an assault. It's interesting to watch also the progression of characters. Chamberlain seems quite likable in the beginning, but as the story unfolds you get the sense that he's just as racist as the rest of them. By the end, he has made his position profoundly clear. Greener too has his good and low points. You cannot help feeling sorry for him when he's sent to the servant's entrance on an interview, is barred from entering chambers because Chamberlain isn't with him, and is nearly turned away at a fine restaurant, but he too can have his obnoxious moments. The one you reel feel sorry for is the much-abused defendant, first assaulted and then forced to sit through an insulting trial.
It would be difficult not to recognize the majority
of the cast, because they are all well known in
public television. The performances are beautifully
subtle but compelling, and for the most part the
film is historically accurate... except on one
point. I do not believe any gentleman would have
used some of the profane language that occasionally
drops into the script. Given morality and religious
devotion at the time, I doubt even a military man
would use the expression "God d***." Not to mention
the one f-word, and two s-words that invade the
script. There are some flashbacks of violence, and
the script is filled with racial provocation and
derogatory terms. I found it very enthralling, if
nothing else than to see how far we have come in
raising a defense. Anyone interested in the American
judicial system or history will find it fascinating.