As you can tell from reading the headline and discovering what film this article is about, this is not going to be the most delightful subject matter to read about. So if you think that this will trigger you in any way for any reason, please feel free to read this instead. Or this. Or this.
The Accused, which opened in theaters on October 14, 1988 and was largely inspired by the 1983 sexual assault of Cheryl Araujo in New Bedford, Massachusetts, tells the story of Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster), a hard-living, hard-partying waitress who decides to enjoy a night out at a local bar where her best friend works as a waitress. Sarah’s drinking and flirting with one of the men hanging out with her at the back of the bar soon leads to him attempting sex with her atop a pinball machine. Even though she makes her lack of interest very clear, the man refuses to stop, and proceeds to rape her in front of every other man drinking and hanging out at the back of the bar. The only thing these men choose to do is cheer raucously while encouraging each other to have their turn with Sarah and rape her as well.
Once Sarah is able to escape from the bar and head to the nearest hospital so she can explain to both police and doctors what happened to her, it isn’t long before Sarah and her attorney, Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) identify and arrest her rapists. Despite Sarah’s willingness to appear in court and testify against them, Kathryn (because of both her own professional ambitions and because she doesn’t believe that Sarah’s testimony will be credible or effective, due to her criminal record and occasional drug use) offers her rapists a plea deal where they will serve two to five years, and does so without consulting Sarah. It isn’t until Sarah lashes out and ends up in the hospital as a result that Kathryn decides to fully devote her energy to standing up for Sarah, and letting her be heard as she informs Sarah that not only will she be prosecuting the men at the bar who cheered on her rapists and did nothing to stop them, but that Sarah will be able to testify against them in court.
Much of The Accused is carried on the shoulders of the lead performances by Foster and McGillis, and both actresses do an outstanding job with their screen time.
McGillis, coming off of the success of Top Gun, and who opened up about her own sexual assault in interviews during the press tour for The Accused, plays Kathryn as someone who takes her work seriously and isn’t willing to risk looking like a fool to her boss until she learns that Sarah’s rape was even more horrible than she originally thought. It’s by that point that she’s willing to submit her own resignation, and even sue her bosses to make sure she doesn’t make the same mistake twice in offering any deals to allow anyone to walk away with just a slap on the wrist, and more importantly, to make sure that Sarah is able to get the justice she deserves.
Jodie Foster won her very first Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in The Accused, and looking back, it’s not at all difficult to see why, and not just because Foster has been an incredibly talented screen presence for as long as many of us can remember. To see Sarah go from gladly living her life and giving no fucks, to scared and traumatized from being raped and watching/hearing all of the people who stood by and cheered as if they were at a football game, to angry and determined to fight back and face her tormentors, it’s not easy to see what Sarah experiences throughout the entire film. It’s not easy or pleasant to see her slowly realize that the man who is flirting with her in a parking lot and slowly winning her over with his charm is actually one of the men who watched her get raped and encouraged his friends to keep it going, or to hear her boyfriend complain about how she’s still upset about her rape and not over it already because her bad mood is bringing him down, or to see her sitting in court and describing every detail of her rape while facing down the men who did nothing to prevent it.
The fact is this: None of this should be easy or pleasant to watch. (And much of this, particularly the scene in which Sarah is raped, certainly wasn’t easy to film, either. Not for Foster, or the film’s director, Jonathan Kaplan, or the actors playing the rapists and the bystanders.) Even when Sarah and Kathryn gain their hard-won victory against the men from the bar, and the audience is given reason to smile about it, it’s not long before the film cuts to black and informs us with statistics appearing onscreen of how often women are sexually assaulted in this country, and that it happens a lot more often than we’d like to believe.
In the thirty years since The Accused was released in theaters, far too many women have had to watch and realize that the more things change when it comes to rape culture, and how sexual assault is treated and perceived, the more they stay the same. Crimes and claims of sexual assault are treated and responded to by the police, the courts of law, and the general public with little to no concern or empathy for the women who choose to come forward and speak out. Women being expected to smile at all times, to satisfy men who see them as nothing more than objects for their own personal satisfaction, and who are insulted and disrespected in every way imaginable whether or not they choose to fight back against the men who are abusing and disrespecting them. Men spending more time and energy worrying about themselves and their dicks than they do about women who have been sexually assaulted, and who live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted. Men who are more concerned and upset about women on social media stating that men are trash than they are about the reasons why women would say that. (#NotAllMen) Men who care more about defending and protecting the futures and careers of other men who have been accused of committing, and who actually have committed, acts of sexual assault, like Nate Parker, Brock Turner, XXXtentacion, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Louis CK, Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and the list goes on and on and on.
Towards the end of the film, Sarah is not the only one to testify about her sexual assault and the men who stood by and did nothing. Kenneth Joyce (Bernie Coulson), a college student who was friends with one of the rapists, stood frozen in his tracks as he saw everything that happened before he left the bar to call the police shortly after Sarah was able to get away safely. As admirable as it is that he was willing to speak out against every single one of the men who nearly destroyed Sarah’s life, it doesn’t change the fact that more could have been done to try and stop what was happening to Sarah, in that he could’ve yelled at the other men and told them to stop, or fought to get Sarah out of there and away from them.
A couple of years ago, back when I was living in Staten Island, I was taking the shuttle train home and listening to my headphones. As I listened to my choice of music and got closer to my stop, I couldn’t help but notice that another passenger sitting nearby was looking directly at me and saying something to me. When I paused the music on my headphones and took them off, I realized that this person, an older white man who was either drunk, high, or both, was happily calling me a nigger. Over and over and over again, and with no provocation. This man repeatedly calling me a nigger was saying it loud and clear enough for every other passenger to hear, and all I remember from this encounter was that no one else on the train said anything to this man. In fact, the only response that most of the passengers had was to look at me sadly and shake their heads in a sympathetic manner. So as I got up to leave, I said something really mean and unpleasant to him (and I made sure to include his mother in the mean and unpleasant remarks that I said to him), and all he did was spit more racial epithets in my direction as the other passengers on the train stayed silent and continued minding their own business. To make it very clear as I conclude this particular anecdote: I didn’t need or expect anyone else to come rushing to my defense (I certainly didn’t expect anyone to come rushing to my defense about an act of overt racism being carried out on Staten Island of all places, as I’ve lived there long enough to know better), and I’m certainly not playing Oppression Olympics in comparing acts of sexual assault to acts of racism (and people standing idly by as either of those occur). They’re both horrible, they both fucking suck, and I’d like to hope I’m stating the obvious in writing this.
The point of the anecdote is that there is a lot more to allyship and being an ally than just shaking your head, and having a look of concern on your face when you see something horrible or offensive being done to others. And if you’re not willing to speak out and step up to help those who can’t help themselves (but also do so in a way that won’t get anyone hurt or killed), you’re not an ally. You’re just a stranger wearing a safety pin who wants to be called an ally, but has done nothing to earn that.
The Accused was and still is an important film to watch and to talk about. If only because there are far too many people, especially men, who need to be reminded that there are far too many ways in which rape culture can and does ruin lives, and that more needs to be done to try and put a stop to it.