• Michael Randall

Erin Brockovich - Superman's Not Coming

One of the classes I have started to teach on in the law school this year is the ‘Law, Film and Popular Culture’ class, which, in addition to becoming synonymous with setting staff pub quizzes on Zoom over the summer months, has seen me take another step in my transformation into becoming the school’s new makeshift Professor Peter Robson – for anyone unaware, last year Peter celebrated 50 years of working at Strathclyde, and is an institution/icon in the department.

I clearly enjoy teaching, otherwise this wouldn’t be my job. However, this class is particularly good fun to be involved with. The class looks to use films, and their depiction of courtrooms and justice, as a lens through which to discuss matters of law, regulation and justice. There are your ‘classic law films’, such as ’12 Angry Men’ when discussing juries, and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when discussing the portrayal of advocates as heroes (we also cover villains, too). But it leads to a class which is varied, and really challenges students to think about the consequences/implications beyond a set of given facts.

Admittedly, at the time of this, I have only taught one lecture on the class, but it was the first one. This lecture was about censorship in film, effectively presenting/discussing the change from censorship to classification, the legislative problems caused by the ‘video nasty’ horror films of the 1970s, and access. Although my search history when writing this was, shall we say, sketchy (I have no intention of watching ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, but you need to know what is in the film in order to talk about why it causing a problem for censorship bodies. You also need to work out why over 11 minutes of footage was cut from the original DVD of ‘The House on the Edge of the Park’), it was also given a modern day ‘shot in the arm’, so to speak, as a result of the controversy surrounding the Netflix film ‘Cuties’.

I’m due to return to teaching the class next week, discussing the topics of stereotypes of lawyers, gender and the law and challenging the system of law. There is one film which stands out as a lens through which to discuss challenging the system of the law and gender – Erin Brockovich (apologies, throughout this saying "Erin" sounds odd, and "Ms Brockovich" also sounds weird, so we're sticking with the full name).

Now, this isn’t a review of the film (I’m going to save a lot of that discussion for the class). However, her story not also features in the law and film class, but also features in my English Law of Tort class when discussing the presentation of evidence which can lead to demonstrating a causative link between a breach of duty of care, and the damage suffered. For anyone who has not seen the film (and until a few years ago, I must admit I was in that category), it concerns contaminated drinking water and the collective action taken on behalf of a community.

Being the semi-competent lecturer I am, I’ve been doing my research (including following her on Twitter) and have purchased, with the view to reading as much as I can before the lecture, her recent book ‘Superman’s Not Coming’.

It sounds strange for this blog to write about a book I’m anticipating reading, rather than recommending something tried and tested to discover. However, the book is both an explanation of continued water crises in the United States (I also mention Flint, Michigan in the Tort law class), and a blueprint as to how citizens/readers can take action to try and influence change. The title of the book is incredibly reflective of this – if you’re looking for some superhero to come and save you, that’s not going to happen. If you want to change the situation, you need to take ownership and drive the change yourself.

One of the things which has struck me in doing preparation for this is representation. This has permeated throughout the class – we want to try and include diversity in film makers and characters/actors. However, To Kill a Mockingbird, whilst depicting race issues does have a white male as its hero. In 12 Angry Men, the racial biases and seemingly overwhelming evidence in favour of a guilty verdict are challenged by…a white male (I’m sure if Laurence Fox sees this, he’ll tell me I’m wrong). However, I spoke to my friend Hedydd (written about on this blog last time) about the class, and said that I was discussing the film. Her enthusiasm for it was instant, in proclaiming that, in all seriousness, the film was one of the main reasons she chose to study law. For context, Hedydd is very determined/passionate/campaigns for things, and has a very clear sense of justice and fairness.

However, something which I’ve taken from reading the book thus far, which I was unaware of, was that Erin Brockovich has dyslexia. In the course of my pastoral care meetings with students, particularly with new arrivals, there is always a concern/anxiety among students who have dyslexia as they are adjusting to a new form of study/accessing information. Law, as a subject, is/can be incredibly reading heavy. We have incredibly talented students who need to find a way of working which suits them.

In highlighting this, I’m not saying ‘it’s a surprise’ – what I am saying is that it is particularly impressive that she has identified that her dyslexia forces her into a different way of working, and has been able to use this to ask awkward questions and achieve real change for the benefit of communities. In a similar way Greta Thunberg has said in the past that she has used her diagnosis with Asperger’s as a super power that allows her to confront and speak to people in a manner to impact change. (I don't think that a short news piece can do Erin Brockovich justice, so as recommended by Hedydd, here is the link to her podcast episode with Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye:

I’m hoping I can read a lot of this by the time I give the lecture – it will clearly add great insight and context to the class/the approach taken. It may be 493 pages, although I appear to have bought a large print version, which makes it incredibly easy to read after a day on Zoom.

One of the things I ask my new Personal Tutees at the first group meeting as an ice breaker exercise is “who is your hero and why?”. This can reveal a lot about a person – what values they hold and aspire to, and general interests. I have to be entirely honest, knowing the impact that she had both on her community and internationally, Erin Brockovich never even entered my mind as a possibility. That’s clearly a form of ignorance on my part. Whether reading this will make me give her as an answer next year, who knows. But it will definitely give me a greater understanding and respect of a cultural icon.

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