Norm reviews Jeff Adachi’s “The Slanted Screen”

ImageI have been a Netflix subscriber for more than five years, and I am genuinely impressed by its ability to recommend movies based on my previous viewing habits. However, it’s recommendations rarely intersect with my work.

But recently, Netflix recommended a documentary on the changing roles of Asian-Americans in cinema. It was a film by none other than Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s Public Defender who bears the distinction of being one of the few public defenders in the nation who is elected to his position by popular vote. His film is called The Slanted Screen and was released in 2006.

The Slanted Screen begins with an interesting film history of Asian actors. Did you know that the silent film era was one of the golden ages for Asian actors in Hollywood? In his day, Sessue Hayakawa was a leading man mentioned in the same breath as Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin. The film goes on to describe the next era for Asian American actors in war movies as well as the martial arts genre. The most interesting part of the documentary, for me, was learning about the responses to such roles. I think I now understand why contemporary Asian-American actors have such mixed feelings about Bruce Lee.

The second half is devoted in large part to discuss the desexualization of Asian-Men in mainstream American film. Essentially, systemic desexualization exists side-by-side with a pervasive refusal on the part of viewers to accept Asian-Americans as leading romantic roles. Adachi explores whether society’s racism is providing a market for media stereotypes, or whether the media stereotypes are the cause of society’s racism.

The documentary is directed in a way that feels like Adachi is presenting evidence backed with testimony to effect a certain point of view. This seems to be congruent with what one would expect from an attorney. And like one might expect, Adachi presents his cases well. The “evidence” Adachi uses are clips from popular movies and his “expert testimony” comes from Asian American actors and writers. The scenes he uses are well chosen to display certain stereotypes, both positive and negative. Whether or not I shared his interpretations, his examples are all thought-provoking.

Case in point: Adachi cites the character of Mike Yanagita,  of the Cohen brothers’ Fargo, as an example of the stereotypically desexualized Asian-American male.

Mike and Marge enjoy Diet Coke’s at the Radisson

When I first saw Fargo, I didn’t think that the Cohen’s poke fun at Mike Yanagita because he is Asian; I thought it was because he’s Minnesotan. And Marge Gunderson is not unavailable to Mike because he’s Asian; she’s unavailable because she’s happily married and pregnant. But just because one stereotype is more prominent doesn’t mean the other no longer exists; Choosing to see Mike Yanagita as a Mid-Westerner doesn’t make him less Asian. Would I view that scene differently if the man Marge meets at the Radisson was of a different race?

Adachi provides more questions to get your film club or class discussion going.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Slanted Screen. It’s about an hour long and it’s streaming on Netflix.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Transcript of His Honor’s Handwashing Liturgy, or The Defendant’s Romero Motion is Denied

Under California’s Three Strikes law, defendants with two or more serious or violent felony convictions receive a minimum sentence of 25 years-to-life for a third serious or violent felony. However, the defense may argue a Romero motion, which asks the judge not to apply the Three Strikes law during sentencing. In his deliberation, the judge considers the facts of the current case, the defendant’s criminal history, and the defendant’s “character, background, and prospects.” The hearing on a Romero motion, which is infrequently granted, follows a ritualistic pattern.

And, in my head, the ritual goes something like this.

Commencement

His Honor:    Ave, Ave, now comes the formerly Accused, now Convicted, presenting himself for the Court’s mercy, garbed in the county-issued vestments of both protective custody and maximum security. Cursed is the snitch, for stitches he shall receive. Cursed is he who requires maximum security, and let him learn to correct his lawless ways whilst surrounded by those as dangerous as he. Counsel! Appearances, please!

Attorney for the District: Ave, Your Honor, for I represent the People of the State of California who are other than the Accused, now Convicted. We now present unto thee our young Acolyte, who is in his third year of law school, and who has been honing his skill in the sacred arts of shooting fish in barrels and confiscating sugary confections from the hands of babes.

Acolyte: Ave, Your Honor.

Norm:    Ave, Ave, Your Honor, Norm DeGuerre for the Accused, now Convicted.

His Honor:    Brother DeGuerre, thy Client presents himself as a supplicant before me, or would if his wrists were not bound by chains to his waist. Thy Client seeks the blessings of St. Romero, who many years ago, prayed for relief and received the miracle of mercy, for the court sentenced him as though he bore not the stains of having prior “strike” convictions. The Accused, now Convicted has been convicted of Robbery, and shall face a sentence of life despite the recently-passed Prop. 36.

Norm: Aye, Your Honor.

His Honor: We shall now begin the Recitation of Terrible Childhood.

Norm:    Aye, Your Honor, I draw thy Honor’s attention to the absence of family or loved ones, who have missed all court dates for the Accused, now Convicted since his junior year of high school. Scars of flesh and wounds of spirit have rent my client into a hastily-assembled scarecrow of the man he could have been had he more money and one caring, competent adult.

His Honor: Now, the Affirmation of Chronic Substance Abuse.

Norm:    Not since the party at Thy Honor’s law firm in 1982, when Thy Honor’s partners removed the mirror from Thy Honor’s office restroom, has such heroic quantities of Columbia’s Finest been consumed as was during the Convicted’s term on parole. But alas, the Convicted snorts not to celebrate, but to forget; and the Convicted spends not his disposable income, but his only income. Thy Honor’s campaign for the bench inspired thee to begin the 12-step purification rituals; alas, the Convicted has no campaigning or politicking for which to abstain.

His Honor: And now, the Plea to the Angels of the Eighth Amendment, in which Counsel will condemn the proposed life sentence as cruel and unusual. Make the plea now so that the Accused, now Convicted’s appellate counsel may brief later what I shall now ignore.

Norm: Your Honor, the Accused, now Convicted did violate the Seventh Commandment, in that he did take two tall-boys of St. Mickey’s Ale out of the refrigerator at the Try-N-Save liquor store, and did try to smite the security guard who declared him a “fucker” and who attempted in vain to wrest the tall-boys from the Convicted’s shaking hands. But your Honor may bestow St. Romero’s blessings for this nefarious misdeed and sentence him to 20 years, and not for the entirety of his life. After all, is the consummation of malt liquor not already a cruel and unusual enough punishment for Thy Honor?

His Honor: And now, Acolyte, commence the Padding of Thy Resume.

Acolyte: Your Honor, I entreat Thee first to gaze in horror upon the tattoos upon the Convicted’s face: Eww. Shine thine eyes upon the Convicted’s numerous parole violations, for they show the Convicted needs more time in prison so that he can learn the lessons that prison failed to teach. And Your Honor, if ye would, muster stale outrage for his burglary conviction from 1992 and his making of criminal threats from 1996, for in those years the Accused, now Convicted did take a Panasonic television set and later hurt someone’s feelings with empty promises of violence.

His Honor: Counsel, prepare thyselves for my ruling:

The conclave of voters hath spoken, and they hath spoken that Three Strikes shall be the law. Terrified they were of rapists stealing children from their homes in the dark of night, and so it shall be that the Wrath of Three Strikes shall smite those at whom we are merely angry as well as those of whom we are scared. If St. Romero’s mercy were granted to all whose woes would have been lifted during childhood by the healing touch of more money and one skilled parent, Three Strikes would smite hardly anyone at all. The plea for St. Romero’s mercy has failed, and the Convicted, now Sentenced shall dwell in a pit of despair to be determined by the Department of Corrections of the State of California. This pit shalt not be within 12 hours ride by Greyhound coach of his family, because really, Brother DeGuerre, as you’ve so pointed out, what are the chances of their visiting anyway? Also, this pit shalt not be rendered humane through adequate taxes, because the conclave of voters hates those. Verily, the conclave despises rendering unto Caesar sufficient ducats to pay for the sentencing laws they demand.

We will now commence the Washing of Hands. The conclave of voters has spoken, and this court shall not accept responsibility for their frenzied whims, nor the perceived disproportion of the court’s sentence to the defendant’s conduct. Verily, as all in attendance can see, I myself learned to make principled decisions long ago. I am only giving the defendant ample opportunity to learn the same lessons.

This concludes the Washing of Hands. You are now dismissed.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Announcing, in Fewer Than 140 Characters…

Chasting Truth, Catching Hell is now available in Twitter form. My Twitter handle is @NormDeGuerreEsq. I can already feel the slimming effects on my thoughts.

My comrade at http://apublicdefender.com (@gideonstrumpet) has opened my eyes to Twitter and was kind enough to introduce me to his readers. Please show him the same appreciation.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Yule Tide Wishes

Dear Readers,

Thank you and Happy Holidays to the folks who continue to check this blog on a regular basis. I have received some very encouraging feedback so far. Thanks especially to Daniel Mullin at the Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog for his support – you should check out his blog! The holidays have been busy, both personally and professionally. New content will arrive in full force during the New Year.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Welcome to my workaday world…

When people in their late twenties and early thirties gather to drink and converse in public, “What do you do for work?” is the typical ice breaker question. Oh, so you’re a consultant. And you’re a programmer? And your wife is a project manager…

Me? I’m a lawyer. I’m a public defender. No, I don’t “defend the public” from criminals. I defend people who are accused of crimes but who can’t afford to hire their own lawyer.

And then, the follow-up question comes. Without fail, I am always asked The Question:
How do you defend those people?

The best thing about being asked The Question every single time a new acquaintance finds out what I do is that I get to practice lots of different answers. With family members (and others with more tender sensibilities), the best answer is the earnest one. A legal system that flatters itself “fair” and “impartial” must treat everyone who comes before it with a basic modicum of dignity. My clients don’t often receive dignity from the world of poverty, drug addiction, and/or psychological trauma from which they come. And even if my client did something truly awful, the only person who will treat them with dignity and ensure that the system doesn’t cheat in its haste to remove him from society is–or should be–his lawyer. It’s a role that I enjoy playing, and every so often, justice comes out of it. That’s how I defend those people.

Sometimes this answer takes too long. Sometimes the listener has spent too many college years avoiding the talky-chatty classes that enable one to absorb humanism and civics at the same time. Sometimes they find it easier to hold on to the rigid value system learned in childhood than to let go of prejudices and look at the messy choices one must make as an adult. Sometimes a person has simply seen too many cases on Law and Order thwarted by fiendish defense attorneys to actually listen to what I have to say. In such cases, I (sometimes) refrain from working one or more of the following phrases into the conversation:

Pedophiles? They’re only scary if you’re seven.

Who said you can’t steal a car in self-defense?

The assault rifle was just for personal use and not for sale.

But quips like these do everyone a disservice. It’s not an answer to The Question. This person may well be a juror for some other defendant in the future. Since California puts all of its truly serious “criminal justice” issues on the ballot for a popular vote, this person might very likely have a direct influence on my own legal practice. If I have information worth sharing, I need to share it sincerely. Multiple installments might be necessary.

And this is why this blog exists. I see sides of life that most will never see unless they are knee-deep in it themselves. The criminal justice system is a subject on which most people have opinions despite not having the professional training or experience to participate in the field. This is only natural as crime stories capture the imagination. These stories involve questions of right and wrong, sanity and insanity, free will and the lack thereof. Poverty, addiction, violence, police authority, and state power come together in ways that often write their own lurid headlines.

Simply put – I want everyone who visits my blog to leave with a more informed opinion about the justice system. It’s good for you. It’s good for me. It’s good for my clients. It’s good for our democracy. I am fully aware that these are my own subjective experiences and that they may or may not be proof of any larger “truth” beyond themselves, but I will always make sure that the stories you read here have truth in them. Truth is something we all chase, even if we never quite catch it. The chase alone is worthwhile.

My rules of engagement for this project are as follows:

  1. I am choosing to make this an anonymous blog. This is for the sake of my clients, not my own. I will tell my readers that I am a thirty-something public defender working in a major metropolitan area in California. Beyond that, I will not share any information that allows the reader to identify a client by name, or even by description.
  2. I will never comment on a “pending case.” By the time you hear about it, any issues of law or fact have been resolved. My blog is a place for reflection, not news.
  3. To further ensure everyone’s privacy, the people about whom I will write are likely to be composites of many different people.
  4. Under no circumstances will client confidences be shared. Ever. Nothing I write will allow a client, another lawyer, a judge or any other “officer of the court” to be identified in any way.
  5. I will never mock a client. I do, however, reserve the right to respond to my work with gallows humor, dry humor, sarcastic quips, exasperation, desperation, and indignation. I will endeavor to keep feelings separate from judgements.

Disclaimers are fun, but now it’s time to get to work.

Respectfully submitted,
Norm DeGuerre