A Look Back at The Accused
Although created 30 years ago, The Accused remains a heartbreaking but brutally honest depiction of what its like to be a rape victim in America. The film was one of the first movies to tackle complex issues surrounding sexual assault. The biggest being victim blaming which is still relevant today.
The 1988 drama The Accused, directed by Jonathan Kaplan and screenplay by Tom Topor tells the heartbreaking story of a rape victim who fights to get justice. At the beginning of the film, we see a bruised Sarah Tobias, played by Jodie Foster, clutching her ripped shirt. The scene is intensified by ominous music and loud beating drums, created by Brad Fiedel. The music intensifies the moment and is eventually overpowered by Sarah’s screams and a man reporting a rape to 911. In the doctor’s office, we are introduced to Kathryn Murphy played by Kelly McGillis, a detached district attorney, who will be handling the case. As she learns more about Sarah, she finds out she is not the most upstanding of citizens. She abuses substances and speaks in a vulgar manner, all of which Kathryn believes would impact the court proceedings. The scenes where Kathryn interrogates Sarah about her life are some of the most powerful and revealing scenes of the film.
These scenes demonstrate how social class affects people’s opinions on who is considered a victim and who is not. Kathryn also states, “It is the defense’s job to say you are a rotten character.” Which makes the assumption that the rape victim is in some way to blame. She also says, “A rape trial is always a gamble,” which demonstrates how flawed our justice system is in relation to rape cases and the difficulty in actually receiving true justice.
One scene places Kathryn in a meeting with the accused individuals' lawyers where Kathryn is informed that Sarah is an undesirable witness. The lawyer plead to cut the accused a break by altering their charges to aggravated assault, not rape, saying “He's a kid of 22. He's a straight-A student. He's got a future. He won't plead guilty to a sexual offense.” This boy is the son of wealthy parents and the defense attempts to use his past accomplishments as proof that he is not capable of rape. This exact line of defense relates to the real-life rape case of Stanford student Brock Turner. The judge based his decision off the boys academic and athletic record and blamed the victim for drinking much like the defense in the film.
Kathryn knowing how the justice system works and that the defense would slander Sarah, accepts the deal that reduces the accused charges to aggravated assault. In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, Sarah barges in on a dinner party at Kathryn’s house to confront her on selling her out. Kathryn realizes what she did was wrong and comes to the conclusion she will prosecute the men at the bar who cheered the rape on and didn’t stop it. This was one of the first times a film depicted the role of bystanders in a rape case. While in court Kathryn gives one of the best lines in the film, “All of it happened in front of a howling crowd…Hold her down. Stick it to her… They did worse than nothing. They cheered and clapped and they rooted the others on.” One of the most important lessons in this film is that the people who watch and do nothing are just as guilty as the people who committed the crime. Unfortunately, in today’s world, this film still feels painfully relevant. With the rise of the #MeToo movement and social media, victim blaming seems like it is around more than ever. Not to mention statistics for rape have only gone up since this film was released in 1988.
The last thing I want to mention about this film is the fact that it was revolutionary for its time and would not have gotten made if it weren’t for Dawn Steel, then president of production at Paramount, and Sherry Lansing, who produced the film with Stanley Jaffe. It also rose to success by the amazing acting by Josie Foster, which resulted in her winning her first Oscar. And also, Kelly McGillis who fearlessly took on the role after being raped at knifepoint in her NYC apartment. I think this film will remain relevant until more changes are made to our justice system and how we as a society treat sexual assault victims.