A Rape & Victim Blaming: Jodie Foster’s ‘The Accused’ Still Haunts
As bystanders watch a rape scene & people say the girl ‘asked for it’, you wonder if we’ve really changed since 1988
(On Jodie Foster’s 57th birthday, The Quint is reposting this review of her provocative and pathbreaking film. It was originally published on 19 November 2017.)
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch The Accused, almost 30 years after its release. I’d Wikipedia-ed enough through my working years to recognise Jodie Foster’s (screen) name, as it habitually popped up in little footnotes to rape references; I’d recognised the sheer torpedo-ing impact the movie must have had on middle-class American imaginations in 1988.
But this was 29 years later. Wouldn’t it feel like returning to an antiquated time? I wondered. A part of me was sure I’d feel outraged at what I already assumed would be the ‘1988 hackneyed portrayal’ of rape – a whole narrative of victim-blaming, where the survivor would probably be lucky to get even eleven minutes of trial time.
Two hours of movie time later? 1988 feels strangely and familiarly like 2017. In fact, newsflash? We may have regressed.
The Disgust and Horror
The Accused begins with a horrifying, pulsating music for the first five to seven minutes of the movie. I’m not sure how to describe it except that it feels ominous – a series of haunting drum beats piercing through the still movie night, as a bruised and battered Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) runs out of a bar called ‘The Mill’, and begins to rush helter-skelter up and down the deserted road outside, screaming for help.
The screams are almost drowned by that pulsating dream beat, rising to a crescendo as Sarah continues to flee, her limbs akimbo like a rag doll, a sign of a bitten lip here, a strap falling off her shoulder there – little signs of the horror she has just been through.
Quite like Bollywood’s own coming-of-age movie, 2016’s Pink, The Accused doesn’t actually show you that horror till it believes you've been disgusted enough by the desensitised approach to rape by everyone in the movie.
It is only halfway through the film, in a flashback, that you see it as it happened – a young Sarah Tobias, who everybody has been quick to denounce as the poster girl for ‘asking for it’, raped in quick succession by three men in the back-room of the bar.
“Asking for it”
Sarah reaches the bar after a fight with her live-in boyfriend, a drug dealer, and begins to hang out with her waitress friend. In the midst of their conversation, someone turns up the music on the jukebox and Sarah begins to dance, with abandon and vigour.
She flirts with one of the men watching her. Soon, there are many, many men watching her. You are forced to watch her, therefore, through the eyes of her perpetrators – as they circle her and gawk at her, almost waiting for the other shoe to drop. It happens in a flash of a second, as one of the men picks her up and hoist heron a pin-ball machine and begins to assault her. Sarah screams, you look away, but the assault continues – by two others after, even as the bystanders watch and egg on these men with lusty cheers.
For me, that was the hardest thing to watch. Not merely the assault itself, but the watching, the approval – for “she asked for it”, they will, later, indifferently tell the motley crew of supporters Sarah has, in the form of a police sergeant and a public prosecutor.
The most amazing thing about The Accused? The pivotal trial of the movie isn’t the one in which her three rapists are convicted; no, they actually get off with a plea-bargain and begin to serve a meagre sentence in prison.
No, the trial that truly guts you is the one where prosecutor Kathryn Murphy (played by a cool, collected Kelly McGilis) drags the bystanders to the courtroom, insisting with impunity that they are equally culpable. Through the course of this trial, then, the previous convictions are also revisited and the sentences made more stringent.
Have we Regressed?
The narrative isn’t unpredictable – the convictions and the sentencing, the trials and the testimonies are all par course. But what isn’t so predictable is how the movie managed to tell this story in 1988, when the real word still hasn’t gotten its act together in 2017.
In a world of Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs, where we continue to hold feverish, antagonistic social media debates accusing women for their silences and whispers, Jodie Foster’s The Accused turns that debate on its head with savageness.
The two uncanniest references to 2017, I thought, came in the form of two chilling dialogues – one delivered by the rape survivor, Sarah Tobias, the other parroted by several men throughout the movie.
When Sarah sees how the crime against her is being played out on TV, where people claim she was dressed provocatively – just stopping short of saying she deserved it, Sarah turns furiously to her lawyer and says, “They make it sound like I was doing a live sex show!” When her lawyer reasons she will be asked far, far worse questions on the stand – about whether she wore underwear to bars and whether she drank habitually and passed out – Sarah, for a tiny woman with a still-bruised and purpled face, screams full-bloodedly: “What does it matter? I was raped!”
The other most telling commentary on how privilege influences a rape trial (think long and hard of the Stanford rape case), is when people discuss one of the three men who had raped her. A fraternity boy, with an influential father, and “great prospects” – wouldn’t his career be ruined if the judge sentenced him, his lawyer urges with sincerity. The idea is sickening, but it is a privilege only too true, even 30 years later.
A final verdict? The Accused, made and filmed in 1988, is still a far braver fictional world than the real world we’ve managed to make in 2017, where victim-blaming and privilege aren’t things of the past. Somehow, I’m not sure why, it feels like we’ve been running around in circles for 30 years to come back to the exact same spot.
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