General 6-9-2004

Justice: Independent Film Lives Again in Minneapolis

"Justice," an independently produced local feature film, recently debuted at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Here's a take on what it is and how it works.

Roger Corman is the king of B-movie producers, and part of his cynical system was to spend a few minutes in his schlocky films on “a social message” that would somehow redeem the cheap script and no-count acting. The opposite is happening in the shooting of Justice, which is about 90% social message and 90% good acting and 90% good writing. Shot for under a million bucks by a band of civil rights lawyers, the film is making a point about how the criminal justice system is not working, and the price we pay for that as a people, as a society. The story of how the movie was made is almost as interesting as the movie.

The film is fiction, shot in semi-documentary form, in Minneapolis. Carter, a public defender who is tired of watching the system fail, leaves the department to go solo, and his struggle is to realize true justice.

Carter opens up a storefront law office to bring more cases to trial because he sees plea bargaining as a kind of deal with the devil, where innocent people are forced to cop a plea rather than risk a trial and serious jail time. He also feels like he’s being eaten alive, losing touch with his wife and family. His wife encourages him to hook up with a major law firm run by her uncle, but Carter is an idealist, and knows he can actually help more people, especially the poor, by staying independent.

Lawyers know, however, that they tend to make as much money as their clients do, and Carter can’t make a living and support a family defending clients with no money, especially the innocent ones. That’s a fact of life. To get the project off the ground, he needs help. Carter’s own deal with the devil, however, is that he opens his shop with money from his cousin Ray, a drug dealer. Ray, played with a friendly yet menacing naturalness by Minneapolis actor Kevin West, has some ideas of his own about how he can use his cousin to his own advantage. But he’s not ruthless; he won’t put his cousin in danger by bringing him in all the way.

The criminal justice system and the powers that be decide that the young idealist has overstepped his bounds when he organizes protests that block traffic for commuting suburbanites. The almost cartoonish white power structure frames Carter as a terrorist funded by drug dealers. Some of this is entirely feasible, some of it convenient plot point. But it’s easy to get caught up in he movie and its story.

Realistic language and some minor nudity give it street credentials for the urban hip audience it is aimed at. But there is nothing in this film that any fifteen year-old hasn’t already seen on TV, except an idealism in the characters and in the production itself that make this a project worth supporting, and a movie worth seeing.

Both the filmmakers and the characters live up to the first two precepts of the model that Dr. King lived, as described by Noel Leo Erskine in “King Among the Theologians.” Erskine describes these guiding principles as “1: The theologian must work from within the struggle to relate Christian faith tot he concrete conditions that affect both body and soul. 2: The theologian must be committed to the struggle to change the world as well as willing to lay down his or her life in the quest for justice for the oppressed.” There is nothing in this film that is specifically Christian or even religious; but the essence of the fight is exactly what Dr. King did, and it asks others to do the same. Carter is ready to lay down his life for the oppressed; and dealing with the consequences has never been more clearly spelled out, in the damage idealism can do to family life and the sacrifice the individual has to make to create a better life for the underclass of our society.

The film is a labor of love in the social-justice sense of the term. The idealism inherent in this film can sometimes come off as corniness, and I mean that as a compliment. Every film has some sort of tone that reminds you it’s a movie; it can be bad jokes, naked greed for the money of the audience, something that talks down to the audience. The usual tone is, “we are going to make a lot of money off this film.” The tone in this movie is, “we are trying to tell a story here that needs to be told, and we are going to tell it the best way we can.” This film is corny in the sense that real life, lived by people who care, can sometimes get very corny, and we are not used to seeing that, because in Hollywood that kind of thing would never get past the door of the Marketing Department. Nobody in Hollywood would green-light this movie because the people in it are not self-serving enough. No one in Hollywood knows anyone like the characters in this movie.

Earnestness is frequently confused with naiveté; some people in Hollywood think that if you are being nice, it’s because you’re stupid. There is nothing stupid about this film. Carter does not leave his wife, nor she him. It is a happy ending, they do find allies all over Minneapolis, they shake things up, and suddenly the Big Boys don’t get what they want. That’s corny, and I’ll take it.

The crowds were great at the Riverview Theater, where they debuted for a week. There was a buzz about this thing. For once, I left a movie thinking about the life I lead, instead of wanting to see another movie.

L.A. actors include Roger Guenvenuer Smith, Monica Calhoun, and Anna Maria Horsford. Local Minneapolitans include Allen Hamilton, T. Mychal Rambo, Joe Minjares, Amy Matthews, Kevin D. West, and Gavin Lawrence. Casting was done, superbly, by Jack Rueler from Mixed Blood. The movie was written, produced and directed by the espoused team of Jeanne-Marie Almonor and John G. Shulman.

For more information, contact Jujitsu Films at