Jodie Foster in The Accused
Jodie Foster in The Accused

As the horrific rape-murder of Priyanka Reddy causes country-wide outrage, baffled attempts to understand what turns young men to savages and knee-jerk ideas about women’s safety come up, which are usually variations of victim-blaming (Why go out alone after dark? Why accept a lift from strangers? And so on…), one goes back to a film that asked all the questions that arise when a woman is raped, and gives the answer, which is simply – justice! Quick and unconditional justice.

 Jonathan Kaplan’s acclaimed film, The Accused (1988), should never be allowed to slip out of memory, and be watched by anyone who has not come across it yet.  Jodie Foster in her Oscar-winning role, played a young woman called Sarah Tobias, who is raped by three men in a crowded bar. Going by the prejudices people already hold against rape victims, Sarah’s lifestyle raises many red flags. She lives in a trailer home with her drug-dealer boyfriend. She also has a record for drug possession, she went to the bar skimpily dressed, got drunk, danced provocatively and flirted with Bob, one of the rapists. In short, most people would believe — if not say out loud — that she was asking for it.

 The police arrest the three rapists, who are soon out on bail. After interviewing some witnesses and figuring out case is weak, the Deputy District Attorney, Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis), without giving Sarah a chance to testify, makes a deal with the rapists' lawyers, and the three are given a light sentence for aggravated assault. 

A furious Sarah feels betrayed and demands justice. She confronts the lawyer and tells her that when she was being raped, a crowd of men were yelling, clapping and making lewd comments. Her trauma does not end there, she is harassed by a man who mocks her when she steps out in public, saying that he was one of the onlookers. 

Feeling guilty for Sarah’s anguish, Kathryn decides to prosecute the spectators for criminal solicitation, so that the assault would be recorded as rape and the perpetrators be given a full sentence. She gets no support from her boss or colleagues, but goes ahead anyway. Sarah and her best friend Sally, who was waitressing at the bar, identify three onlookers in a lineup.

Kathryn also traces Bob’s friend Kenneth (Bernie Coulson), who had left the bar when the assault was taking place. Even the sympathetic Kenneth believes that the spectators weren't to blame. "It was like a show. They watched. Big deal," he says. But he is persuaded to testify. After a pitched battle in court, as Kathryn argues, “It is the crime of criminal solicitation to command, induce, entreat or otherwise persuade another person to commit a rape." She wins the case — the three onlookers are found guilty of criminal solicitation. Thanks to Kenneth’s courage and honesty, Sarah stands vindicated.

 Three decades after The Accused came out, which made a strong case for “no means no” Hindi film Pink (2018) brought it up too. Even if the woman was improperly dressed and intoxicated, if she did not give consent, the men had no right to rape her; even if the woman was considered a “low class bimbo” or trailer trash, her pain, humiliation and rage could not be disregarded. The same kind of callous statements are made by people whose job is it to fight for the victim — when a cop says, if Priyanka found herself in danger why did she call her sister and not the cops; when a CBI chief comments that if rape is inevitable, why not enjoy it; if a Chief Justice thinks it is a good idea to get the rapist to marry the victim, there’s a long way to go for women to win this battle. 

When a woman faces sexual violence, more often than not, she is the one who goes on trial, not the ones who assaulted her. There was a lot of discussion over the idealistic ending of The Accused — when a woman does everything to lead men on, can she then turn around and play innocent? 

Rita Kempley, in a Washington Post review, makes the right points, “She (Sarah) gets into trouble not because she is ''asking for it,'' but because she assumes her opponents will play fair. It's late and she's mad at her boyfriend when she naively sashays into the bar to visit a waitress friend. Heads turn, mouths drop, temperatures rise as her straps slip off her shoulders and her hair spills down her naked back. There's sexual tension enough for a topless bar when Sarah does a dirty dance in the back room. When the only woman in the room storms off in disgust, the men lose all restraint. Face it. No women in her right mind would have gone into that bar and done her impression of a Vanity video. But Sarah's lack of good sense isn't on trial here, nor for that matter is male aggression. The Accused addresses the accountability of the bystander. Katheryn's ''criminal solicitation'' case is hypothetical, but it is based on accounts of witnesses who did nothing or led cheers. Here, screenwriter Tom Topor indicts the sideline scum, but his drama is mainly a call for heroes. And in the end, there is one — a fraternity boy, who becomes a key witness for the prosecution though it means helping convict his best friend of first-degree rape.”

 The men who tell women to cover up, keep their eyes down, not arouse men, are part of the problem. The head of a college who prohibits women from the library after dark, the cops who harangue young dating couples, those who call sexual harassment eve-teasing, and say “boys will be boys” are like the onlookers in the film — they are guilty too, of abetting crimes against women.

The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.

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