Top 8 courtroom dramas based on true stories

Legal thrillers are a favorite genre, both on TV and the silver screen. Many films are based on real-life events, and have helped bring justice to issues plaguing our society. Allen & Allen champions the bravery of any attorney willing to take risks to fight for justice, just as we do for our clients every day. Below, I’ve listed the top 8 courtroom dramas that are based on true stories.

Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall

Photo credit: Open Road Films

8) Marshall (2017)

Starring the beloved late actor Chadwick Boseman, this film highlights a major event in the career of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. As an attorney for the NAACP, he was sent to Connecticut to defend a person of color who was wrongly accused of a crime.

True to life, Thurgood Marshall took on the case for Joseph Spell, a black chauffer driver accused of sexually assaulting his employer Eleanor Strubing. Marshall was relegated to lead counsel and not allowed to speak at trial, yet skillfully brought justice with a verdict of not guilty.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia

Photo credit: TriStar Pictures

7) Philadelphia (1993)

Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a lawyer who hides his HIV-positive diagnosis and homosexuality, concerned that he’d be fired if anyone found out. His biggest fear comes to fruition when he is discovered by a co-worker, and the ensuing courtroom drama sees Denzel Washington stepping up to defend him.

The plot of the film is similar to the events that happened to attorneys Geoffrey Bowers and Clarence Cain. In 1987, Bowers sued the law firm Baker McKenzie for wrongful dismissal in one of the country’s first AIDS discrimination cases. Cain was was fired by Hyatt Legal Services after his employer found out that he had AIDS. He successfully sued Hyatt just before his death in 1990.

A Civil Action movie still

Photo credit: Touchstone Pictures

6) A Civil Action (1998)

In this film, John Travolta plays a tenacious lawyer who risks his career to challenge a powerful corporation. The company in question was tainting a local water supply, and residents began to suffer leukemia and other cancers as a result.

In real life, Woburn Massachusetts was plagued with multiple companies dumping chemicals into the water supply, and attorney Jan Schlittman won a settlement for his plaintiffs. In addition, the companies in question had to pay for the largest chemical cleanup in the history of the Northeastern United States at that time, which cost about $68 million.

Still from Judgement at Nuremberg

Photo credit: United Artists

5) Judgement at Nuremburg (1961)

Spencer Tracy plays a judge overseeing the case of four Nazis in Allied-occupied Nuremberg. This courtroom saga covers cultural philosophies, civilian control and political implications.

Judgment at Nuremberg is based on the famous Trial of 1947, where the U.S. Army held military tribunals for several captured Nazi war criminals. For history buffs, especially those interested in World War II history, this film is a must-see.

Junia Roberts and Albert Finney in Erin Brockovich

Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

4) Erin Brockovich (2000)

This film earned actress Julia Roberts an Academy Award, and highlighted a scandalous water contamination issue, where a community was suffering from nose bleeds, miscarriages and cancer. When Brockovich drove to the Mojave Desert to inspect, she witnessed green water and two-headed frogs.

Her personal injury firm secured a record-breaking settlement for their clients: $333 million dollars. To this day, Erin Brockovich is still active in the legal community, writing books and opening Erin Brockovich Consulting – helping lawyers with cases regarding toxic exposure.

Still from Inherit the Wind

Photo credit: MGM

3) Inherit the Wind  (1960)

Based on an event that received national attention, Gene Kelly portrays a reporter covering a case regarding the separation of church and state. Spencer Tracy plays a high-powered lawyer that defends the story’s hero.

Inherit the Wind is based on a real-life court case, where a teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution in the classroom instead of creationism, which violated a Tennessee state law.

Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

2) A Few Good Men (1992)

This film features a stable of A-list actors, such as Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. In the plot, a military lawyer defends two Marines accused of killing a fellow Marine on their base in Guantanamo Bay.  The defense team suspects that a commanding officer ordered the Marine’s murder and begins investigating.

In real life, the Marine in question survived the assault. But in a twist that takes place after the film’s release, one of the “few good men” from the case ends up murdered under mysterious circumstances. The killer has never been found.

Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters

Photo credit: Focus Features

1) Dark Waters (2019)

The all-star cast for this film boasts Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Anne Hathaway and Bill Pullman, among others. Ruffalo plays an attorney that pulled away from his own firm, because they continued to defend DuPont, a high-paying client that was responsible for toxicity issues associated with Teflon.

This courtroom drama is based on a true story, and Rob Bilott went from attorney to environmental crusader. DuPont was allegedly aware that their plants were causing kidney cancer, testicular cancer and other illnesses, but continued to contaminate local waters near their plants. In 2017, Bilott won a $671 million settlement on behalf of more than 3,500 plaintiffs.