Justice: Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted




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Erin Brockovich

Review by Hans Sherrer

Starring: Julia Roberts and Albert Finney
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Susannah Grant
Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
Released by ©2000 Universal Studios

I went to see Erin Brockovich expecting to be disappointed. I don't have a high opinion of Julia Roberts' acting talent, and the movie's advance hype depicted her in the title role as looking, dressing, talking and acting like a cheap, aging street walker. However, the movie was supposedly based on the true story of Erin Brockovich, so I figured I'd go to a late afternoon showing, and if I didn't like it, I'd ask the box office for my money back.

I was rather pleased with myself, because I wasn't initially disappointed in expecting to be disappointed. As the movie began, I became so annoyed at Miss Roberts' character that I actually found myself hoping that James Cagney would magically come back to life so he could shove a grapefruit in her face to shut her up. Erin Brockovich was wound so tightly, I half expected her to spontaneously explode.

Then, about a quarter of the way through the movie, I found myself suddenly engrossed in the story. I realized that the personal qualities of Erin Brockovich were solely responsible for creating the movie's events. Her savvy street smarts, passion and lack of pretension were instrumental in opening the tightly closed doors hiding a real-life horror story.

At its heart, Erin Brockovich is about the Pacific Gas & Electric Company's callous mistreatment of over six hundred people in the small and remote Southern California town of Hinkley. Beginning in the 1960s, the $28 billion utility company began poisoning the groundwater from which many of the town's people drew their drinking water. The poison was hexavalent chromium, a chemical particularly unfriendly to human beings. Among other things, it is known to cause liver failure, organ destruction and numerous kinds of cancer. Knowing what it had done, P.G. & E. went to elaborate lengths to engage in a cover-up to avoid legal liability for the physical disabilities and deaths the poisoning caused adults and children alike.

The people of Hinkley were powerless against the corporate forces exploiting them for two primary reasons. First, they were ignorant of past and current harms being done to them because P.G. & E. was covering up. Second, they lacked a champion who could empathize with their pain and suffering and lead the fight for them against a foe of almost limitless financial resources.

Although she was working as simply a glorified file clerk for a small law firm, once Erin Brockovich arrived on the scene in the early 1990s, she began to stir things up in her own unique way. She gave people hope, and was the central catalyst who enabled the victimized people of Hinkley to win $333 million from the utility company responsible for poisoning them and then hiding what it had done. The monetary award is the largest civil award in a direct action lawsuit in U. S. history.

Although the movie isn't about someone who has been wrongfully convicted, it is about nearly a thousand people who were wrongly treated by a company normally shielded from meaningful accountability by its political connections and army of high priced lawyers. A close parallel in the law enforcement system is the increasing privatization of prisons and the well placed political connections and deep pockets firms that need to be awarded such contracts. Money and political friends help insulate such companies from accountability for the psychological and physical harm they cause the people held in their custody. Erin Brockovich's tenacity and concern for downtrodden people are also traits exhibited by many people who help men and women find some measure of justice from the uncaring law enforcement system that wrongly prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned them.

The power of Erin Brockovich's focus on doing what she thought was right and her natural instinct to use guerilla tactics to get otherwise unobtainable results, is one of the movie's important themes. Her resourcefulness, hard work and common sense overcame her lack of a formal education and the challenge of being a single mother of three small children who wasn't receiving any child support. The movie also made it clear that Erin Brockovich's Don Quixote-like quest to help the people of Hinkley also enabled her to reinvent her own life for the better. She found that she could positively impact the lives of less fortunate people, as she had wanted to do since she was a girl.

Erin Brockovich is one of the most inspiring stories of "David" overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to beat, in the words of Brockovich's lawyer boss, Ed Masry, "Goliath and his whole family," that I've seen in a long time. Need I say that I didn't ask for my money back when Erin Brockovich was over?

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