‘J’Accuse’: False Allegations and When Directors Reveal Themselves

J’Accuse (2019)

There’s usually a reason why a story gets told. Sometimes it becomes a film because there was a popular book, or maybe it just has a newly established relevance. So… why are we getting so many movies about men under false accusations? Now, the criticism of this wave doesn’t apply to all. Films like If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Mercy – both adapted from popular books, although the former is a work of fiction, as opposed to the nonfiction exposé of the latter – depict the false imprisonment of black men, a genuine epidemic within the flawed American justice system. The problem is when filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Roman Polanski bring up stories that have been told hundreds of times, or have been forgotten and not asked to be revived, to remind audiences that white men can be victims too.

The main problem with Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell is how determined it is to make the female journalists the enemy. Olivia Wilde plays journalist Kathy Scruggs, whose family has panned the film. And with good reason: she is shown as someone who will sleep with any man for information, and is not depicted with any sort of journalistic integrity. The friends and family of Scruggs have reached out in protest of her depiction in the film, and Olivia Wilde has apologised for taking the role. Eastwood himself is a filmmaker with strong-held conservative beliefs. He has referred to young people as the ‘pussy generation’ frequently, a harsh dismissal of anyone hoping to seek justice for themself or others.. This isn’t unrelated to Richard Jewell’s central thesis; the film is about a man who stops a bomb, but the FBI and surrounding media storm blame him for setting it. Perhaps he sees himself in Jewell as well, a man attacked for doing the right thing.

J’Accuse, known predator Roman Polanski’s latest offering, is in a similar vein. The Dreyfus Affair, which is certainly an important part of history, especially in the conversation surrounding the constant influence of anti-semitism, is an event that has been put to film countless times, as early as the dawn of cinema in 1919. So why revive it now? Well, it is an indisputable false accusation, one where the accused is firmly the victim. Perhaps this is how Polanski sees himself, as the innocent blamed for the crimes of the world. His adaptation is not so much about the mistreatment and blaming of Jews in times of conflict, much of why the incident is a relevant piece of history today, but the general idea of a man blamed for doing the right thing.

What’s the danger in all of this? The danger is that, in a world where ‘maybe she’s lying’ is often the knee-jerk response to women coming forward about their experiences with sexual assault, that this only makes the chances of a woman lying look larger. In America, we claim we follow the rule of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but this is only a guise for a justice system that is rigged for those in power. In America, you are innocent if the stereotype says so, and guilty if not. Crimes are not equal no matter who commits them, because the law does not like to stray from enforcing our imperialist ideals of the ‘good countrymen’.

Richard Jewell (2019)

Richard Jewell may be more direct in its misogyny, but the malice behind J’Accuse is far clearer. Polanski is banned from the United States after criminal charges, even as a powerful Hollywood figure, a notoriously immune class.  Despite many credible rape and abuse accusations, he still believes his own innocence, saying “In the story I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself” when asked why he chose to adapt the story of Alfred Dreyfus. The film has brought a platform for men who cannot see their own wrongs to believe that they are akin to a victim in the world today. By making it, the very existence of the film is a statement that anyone can bounce back from their sins if they have enough money, power, and influence.

The reality is, this world of courts and claims is not universal. The ‘white male struggle’ is not comparable to what black and brown men face in terms of discrimination in the United States court system. Even #MeToo has taken on an overwhelming whiteness; despite the movement beginning from Tarana Burke, a black women’s activist, she is often not credited for the movement despite sparking it. Actress Alyssa Milano is often given the credit because of her individual visibility, and this visibility has a pattern. Nearly all of the Me Too cases that have blown up in the media have been accusations from white women, despite hundreds more confessions from black women being buried as soon as they surface. The issue is often told from solely a gender-based analysis, when race is often deeply entwined in any topic of justice, especially in America.

The plight of a man falsely accused, even of charges like rape, can be told respectfully, empathetically, and with purpose. Take If Beale Street Could Talk from Barry Jenkins, for example. Adapted from the James Baldwin novel, it’s a gentle romance scarred by the struggle of Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) when he is falsely accused of raping a young woman from Puerto Rico. He was not there at the scene of the crime, but that does not matter to the police looking for someone to blame and then sweep the case under the rug. He and his pregnant lover, Tish (Kiki Layne), are not the only ones affected by the charges. It’s a portrait of a family trying to hold together, with one of the most powerful scenes showing Regina King’s character confronting the victim, asking if she knows who really did it. She is desperate for some truth, for some answer to this curse that has befallen her daughter’s newfound family. The film ends with Tish visiting Fonny in prison; it’s bittersweet because the couple’s love has endured, but they have still lost to the crushing weight of a justice system that just wants someone to blame and then dismiss.

Just Mercy (2019)

Jenkins isn’t alone in this. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy is perhaps the thesis of how to tell the story of a false accusation, and when it matters. Based on death row lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name, it largely focuses on a man named Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who is about to be executed for a crime years ago that he did not commit, and there is overwhelming evidence of his innocence that the courts ignore. It’s a true-to-life story of a man exonerated, one that stings because it is true. Even without Beale Street’s doomed ending, and romantic flourishes, Just Mercy ignites the same anger against the broken system because it’s a hardly dramatized piece of nonfiction, albeit one with generic execution. It lacks some of the book’s scope however, as the book alternates between the deep dive into Walter’s story, and so many similar incarcerations nationwide that make the problem more hopeless, more angering, that stories this fleshed out with injustice are this plentiful.

It seems the large problem with the false-accusation dramas that don’t work is how the filmmakers victimize themselves. Unlike Just Mercy and If Beale Street Could Talk, which are directed by men of color, Richard Jewell and J’Accuse stem from a demographic that is not societally bet-against. Both Jenkins and Cretton have a talent for empathy and warmth in their films,with Moonlight’s intimate coming of age of a black gay man, and Short Term 12’s compassionate story of a foster care supervisor, and the kids who pass through acting as their crowning achievements otherwise. It is their empathy that makes their stories work, the gentle understanding for everyone involved in their worlds.

Polanski and Eastwood tell their stories without this empathy, hoping the plot alone will incite pity. This pity is the main downfall. Both filmmakers believe they are in a world where white men are under attack, and this is why they have filmed the true stories they have. Put a white man and a black man in America on trial for the same case, with the same amount of unclear evidence. Nine times out of ten, the white man will walk free while the black man will be found guilty, because the American injustice system is ruled by a historically white power structure that protects their own. The problem is men who think that the rightful calling out of abusers and misogynists in the industry makes them equal to black men mistreated by the rigged court system, not the overall idea of a film about a man falsely accused of a crime. It’s about the perspective these films are coming from that reveals their purpose, not the topic alone. This is why we cannot broadly separate art from artist; French actress and vocal feminist Adèle Haenel has called for these discussions to accompany screenings of J’Accuse, and with good reason. By discussing how the art interacts with the artist and their beliefs, we begin to see the intention and audience in a clearer light.

by Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is a film writer who loves Portrait of a Lady on Fire, empathetic foreign cinema, experimental films that give you headaches, but mainly just Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She is currently directing her first feature film, which feels like it’ll never be finished, and will be the first to reclaim New French Extremity classic Martyrs as a feminist film (ironically or not, we shall not know). You can find her on Twitter @peppermintsodas and on Letterboxd @dselwyns

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