Issues

5 Movies About Human Rights Lawyers

Lawyers are a popular subject for movies. Depending on the story, they might be portrayed as cutthroat and cold-hearted, or as passionate and willing to sacrifice their well-being for justice. In the real world, human rights lawyers face many challenges. This type of lawyer focuses on human rights violations and the people most often victimized, including women, racial minorities, refugees, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. To see justice fulfilled, lawyers often face off against governments, corporations, and other powerful groups. Harnessing their expertise, lawyers help ensure that human rights are upheld. It would be very difficult to hold abusers accountable without human rights lawyers. Here are five movies about lawyers fighting for justice:

Philadelphia (1993)

Director: Jonathan Demme / Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Mary Steenburgen

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) works as a senior associate at a corporate law firm in Philadelphia. He’s gay but chooses to hide his sexuality. After being fired for misplacing paperwork, which Beckett is not responsible for, he suspects the real reason for his dismissal is that he has AIDS. He decides to sue. Eventually, Beckett finds a personal injury lawyer (Denzel Washington) willing to represent him as his health deteriorates. Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream films to discuss homophobia, homosexuality, and HIV/AIDs. Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for Best Actor, while the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. It’s inspired by the real-life story of an attorney who sued for wrongful dismissal in 1987, one of the first AIDS discrimination cases.

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Dark Waters (2019)

Director: Todd Haynes / Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp

Corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilot (Mark Ruffalo) has his life turned upside down when a farmer (Bill Camp) from his grandmother’s hometown arrives at his office. The man wants Robert’s help investigating the chemical corporation DuPont. Robert is initially unsure of what he can do, but when he visits the farm himself, he grows more and more suspicious. Dark Waters follows Robert’s real-life quest to find the truth, the toll it takes on him, and how he holds DuPont accountable for their deception. While Robert didn’t start as a human rights lawyer, his battle on behalf of those affected by the corporation’s actions certainly qualifies him.

Shahid (2012)

Director: Hansal Mehta / Starring: Rajkummar Rao, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, Prabhleen Sandhu

This film is based on the short life of Shahid Azmi, an Indian lawyer. During the 1992 Bombay riots, Azmi is arrested. Because he’s young and there isn’t much evidence against him, he’s let off without jail time. As an adult, he is arrested again. This time, he spends seven years in jail based solely on a confession he never actually made. While imprisoned, he takes a distance course and becomes a lawyer. Following his release, Azmi begins defending others accused of terrorism. In 2002, he works as the defense lawyer in a bus bombing case, leading to acquittals and the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Passionate and driven, Azmi attracts the ire of many for his work. What will it cost him?

Marshall (2017)

Director: Reginald Hudlin / Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson

This legal drama centers on one of Thurgood Marshall’s early cases: the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. In this 1940 case, a wealthy white woman accuses her Black chauffeur of rape. The event immediately draws the attention of the media, who create sensationalist headlines. It’s a perfect case to fuel racial stereotypes held by the nation. Marshall, who works as the NAACP’s head lawyer, defends Spell with the help of a local lawyer. While Spell’s boss claims he raped her, Spell has a very different story. Will the truth come out? Thurgood Marshall would go on to work many other civil rights cases and become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. This film is a great choice for fans of the legal aspects of To Kill A Mockingbird, but who want something based on a true story.

Just Mercy (2019)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton / Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson

Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama to focus on representing those who can’t afford proper representation. With Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he starts the Equal Justice Initiative and visits a prison to meet with death row inmates. There, he meets Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a Black man given the death penalty for a murder he didn’t commit. Working within a complex and racist justice system, Stevenson fights to see that justice is done. Just Mercy is based on Stevenson’s award-winning memoir of the same name. Stevenson continues his work defending the human rights of people caught in the criminal justice system. He’s argued (and won) multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.