Pop Culture Assignment / “My Cousin Vinny”

There were two very important things I learned from “My Cousin Vinny.” First, I never realized how badly my life needed Ralph Macchio with a New York accent before today, and second, the movie drew attention to the issue of racial discrimination in the South. At first, I wasn’t sure if the racial placements of black people in subservient positions was intentional or not until a pivotal moment in the movie where Mr. Trotter (the Third), the prosecutor, is making his opening statement to the jury. He states, “Truth. That’s what ‘verdict’ means. It’s a word comes down from old England…and all our little old ancestors.” As he finishes feeding the jury his lines, the camera lands on a black juror. The truth had immediate impact on me as the preceding scenes boasted images of Confederate flags, black stereotyping of apparently poor old men wasting their days gossiping on a town bench, a black mechanic nobody takes academically seriously, and a black cook working behind the counter at a diner. It shocked me to see how many black actors and actresses had been placed in submissive positions until halfway through the movie. The directors, intentionally or not, treated the black characters like side quests in a video game. They felt very optional to me, even though they held the answers to solving the case. For example, the black mechanic warned them that tires get stuck in the mud, an imperative point in the case that was mocked by the main white characters initially upon arrival into town, and the chef told them how grits were cooked, also an imperative detail passed through the cook and communicated to Vinny Gambini, the defense lawyer, that proved the “witness” had lied about his timeline to pin the guilt of the case on two boys he presumed were guilty of the crime. Vinny didn’t take their words into serious consideration until the time proved useful to him. He waited until the opportune time to claim their knowledge as his own for the betterment of his status in the legal community, which did not even exist until Vinny’s female fiancé called in a favor to a friend. The lack of acceptance and acknowledgement of feminism and the lack of recognition of women as intellectual equals in this movie infuriates me, but that is a topic for another day.

I would like to flash back to the courtroom scene where the words “…old England…and all our little old ancestors…” hung ominously in the air before the face of a black juror. Black people, originally aboriginal Africans, were brought to the English colonies in the early 1600s by white colonists. Back then, African-Americans’ opinions and beliefs were treated like secondhand smoke—diseased and undesired (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-milestones).

However, the knowledge of these black characters held the answers to the court case. They offered minute details to the defense attorney that none other held. They knew the process behind the acclaimed facts, but nobody believed them because of the color of their skin. Even in modern pop culture, black characters are treated as humorous reprieves rather than morally autonomous characters who offer intellectual continuance of the conversations being held at the white tables.

Particularly in the South, many white people to this day see black people as poor descendants of slaves who picked cotton and were nothing more than the dirt on their field clothes while quite-the-opposite-movement was happening—one of financial, physical, and academic freedom. The color of one’s skin, contrary to popular belief, did not determine the intelligence in one’s brain. There was great irony and acknowledgment in not accepting black education in the South. The movie was filmed in 1991, but the Confederate flag, the ultimate symbol of black oppression, wasn’t removed from Alabama’s statehouse grounds until 2015 according to The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/24/alabama-governor-has-confederate-flag-removed-from-state-capitol-grounds/). While white Alabama citizens were not willing to accept that black people had inherent independent freedom, they were denying it from people as free as their white selves. They were equals, yet the white people of the Southern state could not accept this.

It was extremely disheartening to see black people treated as inferiors, even as recently as 1991, in films because equality should be acknowledged throughout the U.S. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world or country, and while I wish I could lead a crusade through North America, I appreciate the attention the directors drew to the concept of racism through this movie. Do I think they could have done a better job at making the black characters less of secondhand novelties? Absolutely. Do I appreciate the attention they were trying to draw to the unconstitutional treatment of blacks in America? Without a doubt. I believe a finer balance could have been reached, but I truly believe their hearts were in the right place. National attention needed to be diverted to rural America where slavery was still an accepted idea, even though it was no longer practiced. Just because something is no longer practiced does not mean it is no longer believed.

Censorship of Trial

During the court proceedings, there is a request that all women and children be removed from the courtroom so the “truth” may be heard in full rather than the testimonies having to be censored for the spectators. This is an arbitrary request, perhaps a ploy to lure Judge Taylor into permitting censorship of the testimony and muddying the already murky and questionable details of the case in favor of Mr. Ewell.

Judge Taylor’s response, however, is ,”…people generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for…” Those who are in the courtroom have as much of a right as any to hear the details of the case as any. They made the conscious decision to be there, and to take away that right is to nullify the reason for the trial in the first place–to determine the innocence or guilt of Tom Robinson. Besides, the graphic nature of the details will, according to Judge Taylor, not sway the people’s opinion because if people want the kernel of guilt to be planted there, they will hear it no matter if the accused is truly culpable of the crime.

The case should be heard for what it is, not a censored version that allows the details of the incident to be buried beneath anonymity and vague blanket statements. If people hear only half of the story, their opinions will be disproportionately skewed with far-reaching outliers. Guilt will be presumed, and a fair and equal trial will have been robbed from the accused. Whether the case was ever able to have a fair shake due to racial predetermination in the community is a separate argument in itself; however, it is able to be accurately stated that there can be no fair trial without the presentation of all the details. People made the conscious decision to absorb the presented information as everyone in that room knew in advance there were accusations of rape; nobody forced them to sit in a courtroom and listen to the gruesome details. They did that of their own volition and therefore presented their consent to listen to the details. If they decided it was too much for them, they had the right and freedom to leave at their discretion.

Poetic Injustice

I find it ironic that Gerardo, a justice on the Commission, is serving the biggest injustice to his very own wife. The beginnings of Gerardo’s promise first appear on page 35 where Paulina says, “…what did you swear you’d do to them when you found them? ‘Some day, my love, we’re going to put these bastards on trial. Your eyes will be able to rove’ – I remember the exact phrase, because it seemed, poetic – ‘your eyes will be able to rove each one of their faces while they listen to your story.'” Gerardo offered her sweet, consoling words but seemingly only to keep her placated and submissive.

Gerardo’s intentions of placation continue to become more noticeable on page 45 where he and Roberto are alone in the kitchen. Gerardo tells Roberto that he needs to confess to the part, even though Gerardo has doubts that Roberto is guilty because Gerardo thinks his wife is “sick” and wants her to stop her madness. How is Gerardo supposed to fulfill his promise of justice to Paulina if all he does is question and belittle her? It seems as though every opportunity Gerardo has to seek the truth, he turns a blind eye to the evidence laying before him because, if Roberto somehow is proven innocent, Gerardo’s career would be over before it was made. His justice for Paulina is a self-serving one in which the end assists him, not his wife.

On page 63, Roberto confesses to Paulina that Gerardo coached him on his confession; however, on the following page, Paulina in turn admits to Roberto that she expected him to do so which is why she fed Gerardo incorrect details which the abuser then subconsciously corrected. Paulina had apparently abandoned hope of her husband carrying through on his promise of justice and sough it herself. Gerardo never completed his promise of poetic justice, and in the end, whatever justice was doled out was delivered by Paulina herself.

Partus Sequitur Ventrem

In both Philip’s and Harris’ works, there is a question, spoken or non, about the association of blackness to property.

For Harris, she noted that slavery was a system that thrived from the division of color, facilitating the idea that ownership was a birthright of skin tone. On page 278, Harris says, “…the institution of slavery, lying at the very core of economic relations, was bound up with the idea of property.” There were many continuing underlying issues perpetuating the idea of whiteness as property, but the most notable was the monetary gain white slave owners were earning from their black slaves.

Philips examined every line of text from the Zong legal case and offered her own expert insight on the determination of the case. As she tore into insurance and property law, she highlighted several key points, one of which was the reasoning behind throwing the African slaves overboard. The insurance company would have to pay the Captain and the family buying the slaves money for “loss of property and income.” In the original case document, the slaves were referred to as “cargo.” Slaves were considered property.

I find it interesting that in both readings we hear cases for blackness as property, and in each case, the law stands on the side of white, property-owning citizens. Even though the law does not strictly mention skin color, it mentions property, and slaves had their statuses legally demoted to “domestic animal” and were branded as animals (Duke Law). This was because whites had adopted the Roman law of partus sequitur ventrem. It handled the legal status of animals in Rome, but the law had been twisted to fit the needs of slave owners by becoming “a legal doctrine concerning the slave or free status of children born in the English royal colonies” (Wikipedia, Duke Law). Both authors make strong legal arguments that blackness was a determinant of property, and I believe they are correct in their stances of black skin color sealing slaves’ fates as property.

Duke Law: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5386&context=faculty_scholarship

I realize Wikipedia isn’t a good source, but Duke Law stated the same idea. Wikipedia just said it better.

Founding White America

“Indeed, the very fact of citizenship itself was linked to white racial identity” (285).

To be white was to be free, but the necessity of being white was an unwritten clause in the Declaration of Independence. Harris comments that the “concept of whiteness” was “established by centuries of custom (illegitimate custom, but custom nonetheless)” (280). Harris argues that justice and subsequently equality are heavily dependent on the color of one’s skin. On page 279, she states, “Whiteness was the characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings.” Slavery was a system that thrived from the division of color, facilitating the idea that ownership was a birthright of skin tone. There were many continuing underlying issues perpetuating the idea of whiteness as property, but the most notable was the monetary gain white slave owners were earning from their black slaves. I believe it’s also important to note that, while Harris focuses primarily on slavery, these statements transcend the historical timeline to modern day where white privileges are sprouts on the deeply rooted practice of slavery. There is an expectation of inferiority associated with blackness in America, a concept supported and uplifted, according to Harrison, through the perpetuated encouragement of the establishment that was slavery.