The 20 Best Movies About Law and Justice, Ranked

These important films explore various facets of the law and legal system. What is real justice? What happens when the law fails?
The 20 Best Movies About Law and Justice, Ranked

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It's easy to forget how powerful movies can really be. Their ability to stir up emotions and inspire change is unmatched, which is why movies are so effective as propaganda—or simply as motivating stories.

One of the most important messages in all of cinema is the value of justice and the importance of law upheld. There have been so many films about these themes, tackling subjects spanning racism, sexism, discrimination, corruption... the whole nine yards.

Justice is a wide thematic scope and can include anything from The Batman ("I'm Vengeance") to Kill Bill ("That woman deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die"). So, I'm going to narrow the scope.

Here are my picks for the best movies about law and justice, specifically films that have an overt tie in to the law and legal system.

20. The Devil's Advocate (1997)

Directed by Taylor Hackford

Starring Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron

Drama, Fantasy, Mystery (2h 24m)

7.5 on IMDb64% on RT

Somewhere along the way, society developed a collective hatred of lawyers. Andrew Neiderman played on this idea in his novel The Devil's Advocate, suggesting that lawyers are in cahoots with Satan.

Keanu Reeves plays the Florida attorney named Kevin, who plays second fiddle to his boss John Milton. His boss eventually reveals himself as Satan in Al Pacino's body, and Kevin succumbs to the temptation of a fatter wallet despite the cost to his wife.

For all its classical text references and biblical undertones—the name John Milton is a nod to Paradise Lost and the visuals speak to Dante's InfernoThe Devil's Advocate is wholeheartedly Hollywood.

Taylor Hackford's film adaptation is far-fetched and full of itself, but like Kevin himself (who concludes "Vanity, definitely my favorite sin"), the film unabashedly knows what it is.

19. The Hate U Give (2018)

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

Starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby

Crime, Drama (2h 13m)

7.5 on IMDb97% on RT

Prepare to boil more than just a demon in holy water while watching The Hate U Give. You'll be boiling with rage, mostly because this story is so completely believable (even though it isn't entirely factual).

How many black lives have been lost to police brutality? It's uncomfortable to even imagine, but The Hate U Give forces us to do just that. We're faced with a reality that must be changed.

The sound of a police siren never fails to induce a shudder for characters who aren't white, and this ripples through us as we watch in anticipation of what's to come.

Teenager Khalil (played by Algee Smith) is shot dead when reaching for a hairbrush—pulled over for forgetting to put on his signal lights—and his best friend Starr (played by Amandla Stenberg) won't stop making noise about it in the aftermath.

"Hands up, don't shoot!" is the motto Starr uses (which originated after the real-life killing of Michael Brown in 2014) to demand justice in front of a grand jury.

18. Loving (2016)

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Starring Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton

Biography, Drama, Romance (2h 3m)

7.0 on IMDb88% on RT

Historically, Western governments have opposed marital couples that don't look like a textbook, whitewashed Adam-and-Eve pairing (who ironically wouldn't have even been white themselves).

In America, interracial marriages took decades of protests to become legal, and the Loving v. Virginia case was integral to that.

In the 1960s, Richard and Mildred Loving took their pleas all the way to the top, demanding to the Supreme Court that the Racial Integrity Act wasn't just unfair but unconstitutional.

Director Jeff Nichols takes us through this milestone appeal without losing an ounce of the human aspect, inviting us to see the people behind the movement (beautifully played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga).

17. Legally Blonde (2001)

Directed by Robert Luketic

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair

Comedy, Romance (1h 36m)

6.4 on IMDb71% on RT

If you're looking for a film about law and the legal system that's on the lighter side, try Legally Blonde—a puffy pink feminist comedy that's got some important messages up its sleeve.

Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) isn't looking for revenge so much as to win back her ex-boyfriend, who dumped her to attend Harvard Law School. It's a life she could never be compatible with. So, naturally, Elle applies to Harvard as well...

...and she passes the admissions test with flying colors. Literally. Her wardrobe is stark pink and she doesn't dress down for anybody. She studies her way up and takes on the courtroom (despite her classmates assuming she's just a ditsy blonde poser) with a wealth of knowledge.

The fact that Elle's fluency in all things fashion, makeup, chemicals, and liposuction—on top of all the legal jargon—doesn't detract but adds to her competence? Well, it's just plain fun to watch!

16. A Time to Kill (1996)

Directed by Joel Schumacher

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson

Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 29m)

7.5 on IMDb67% on RT

In 2011, The Lincoln Lawyer gave us Matthew McConaughey as a flashy, chauffeured Los Angeles lawyer who demands $100,000 up front for his services. Not a bad movie per se, but it pales in comparison to his other legal drama role in A Time to Kill.

Based on the novel by John Grisham, A Time to Kill features Matthew McConaughey as a low-level lawyer in 1980s Mississippi, this time working for justice rather than a playboy paycheck.

A Time to Kill places Samuel L. Jackson on the stand as Carl, who's being tried for double homicide after shooting the two white men who raped—and tried to kill—his daughter.

A Time to Kill takes a different approach to the complexities of racial politics, with an all-white jury assigned to decide Carl's death sentence. Similarly, Carl hires a white lawyer to divide the jury's sympathies.

15. And Justice for All (1979)

Directed by Norman Jewison

Starring Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe

Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 59m)

7.4 on IMDb83% on RT

Being a lawyer is hard work, but it comes with the promise of big rewards. No, I'm not talking about money! I'm talking about the assurance that you've helped restore some sense of balance in the world.

But does that still hold when you're defending bad guys who have done bad things? After all, even criminals need legal representation. They're "innocent until proven guilty" and all that.

Arthur Kirkland (played by Al Pacino) doesn't want to be the kind of lawyer who lets villains loose back on the street, escaping justice due to technicalities and legal loopholes.

So, when he's blackmailed into defending a guilty man—who also happens to be a judge who's accused of violently raping a young woman—Kirkland's peace of mind is quickly compromised.

A standard courtroom drama, And Justice for All is an easy-to-please film for legal drama enthusiasts, sporting a solid performance from Pacino who delivers the famous impassioned phrase: "You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order!"

14. On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Directed by Mimi Leder

Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux

Biography, Drama (2h)

7.1 on IMDb72% on RT

It's annoying that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to show how discrimination "on the basis of sex" victimizes men before anyone would listen to how it has long victimized women.

Thousands of sexist cases against women were ignored while only one against a man—relating to the Internal Revenue Code—was required to get the government listening. Admittedly, it was still a struggle.

Played by Felicity Jones, Ruth knew she had to play the patriarchal game if she was to win it. She was tactical and dedicated in her quest for "radical social change," and she climbed the hierarchy to associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

On the Basis of Sex tracks her early days, from Harvard Law School in the 1950s to co-founding the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU in the 1970s. It's a must-watch biopic for legal enthusiasts.

13. Just Mercy (2019)

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson

Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 17m)

7.6 on IMDb85% on RT

Not all lawyers are fraternizing with the devil. Some are out there representing people who are without a voice, even refusing to represent those who have deep pockets and powerful influence.

Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) is a real-life person and an example of such a lawyer, who successfully fought to prohibit the death sentence and life imprisonment for minors.

He also defended the poor African-American inmates on death row in the South—inmates the world had shrugged off without even listening to their points-of-view.

In Just Mercy, Stevenson is fresh out of law school and drawn in by the appeal of a wrongfully convicted murderer (played by Jamie Foxx).

Just Mercy might be a formulaic docudrama, but the formula is there to serve a wider audience with its important tale. It also—appallingly yet inspirationally—sticks close to the facts.

12. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen

Drama, History, Thriller (2h 9m)

7.7 on IMDb89% on RT

The Trial of the Chicago 7 gives us a glittering ensemble cast who presents the events surrounding the Chicago Seven in 1968.

At the time, anti-Vietnam War protestors were exploding into loud-but-peaceful riots all over the US. It was actually the police who responded violently with batons and tear gas. And yet, seven major activists were arrested and dragged through trial.

Institutional racism and government corruption seep out of Aaron Sorkin's legal drama, which raps to the beat of his rhythmic script as the Chicago Seven stand not just to end war, but end the incessant prejudice that resides within their very courtroom.

11. Dark Waters (2019)

Directed by Todd Haynes

Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins

Biography, Drama, History (2h 6m)

7.6 on IMDb89% on RT

In Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo headlines as the real-life environmental attorney named Robert Bilott, who toiled against corruption.

Bilott was originally a corporate defense lawyer who was pestered by a West Virginian farmer to investigate his ravaged land. Though he refuses at first, Bilott eventually represents the farmers after witnessing the deaths of animals and crops first-hand.

Realizing that the local waters are polluted by DuPont chemicals (who are fully aware of the cancer they're causing), Bilott grows relentless in his pursuit of justice and fighting for what's right.

The huge conglomerate DuPont easily squares up to this one measly lawyer who's trying to take them down, but that doesn't stop Bilott from trying—and almost killing himself in the process.

10. Primal Fear (1996)

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Edward Norton

Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 9m)

7.7 on IMDb77% on RT

It takes immense acting skills to pull off a character with dissociative identity disorder. Switching between personalities has to be both subtle yet obvious, which isn't easy—but Edward Norton is completely believable as he does so in Primal Fear.

Norton plays a meek teenage altar boy with a stutter. (Not exactly your usual suspect when it comes to a violent killing.) But alas, Aaron is found dripping with the blood of a recently murdered Archbishop, and he hires Martin Vail (played by Richard Gere) to defend him pro bono.

Amnesia and mental illness complicate the charge, and Martin must figure out whether Aaron is still technically accountable if he was acting in another mind during the crime.

9. My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Directed by Jonathan Lynn

Starring Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Ralph Macchio

Comedy, Crime (2h)

7.6 on IMDb87% on RT

Legally Blonde isn't the only notable legal comedy in cinema history. Although sporting substantially less hot pink, Vinny and Mona (played by Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei) are also inappropriately dressed for court! But they prefer leather jackets, dark sunglasses, and cowboy boots.

Still, Vinny is officially a personal injury lawyer by profession, so his cousin Bill (played by Ralph Macchio) has no choice but to hire him when he's unjustly charged with first-degree murder.

A simple case of wrong place at the wrong time, Vinny struggles to get Bill off due to the fact he's never actually been on the bar before.

Joe Pesci's performance is perfect as the coarse, dense, and hilarious Vinny Gambini, who confuses the judge with his thick New Jersey accent and frequently lands in jail himself.

Interestingly, despite being a comedy with a silly plot and sillier characters, My Cousin Vinny has one the most accurate depictions of courtroom procedure of all the films on this list!

8. A Few Good Men (1992)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore

Drama, Thriller (2h 18m)

7.7 on IMDb84% on RT

I wouldn't hold it against you if you think A Few Good Men is the ultimate movie about law, especially with Jack Nicholson's iconic quote—"You can't handle the truth!"—which is yelled out after he's put in the hot seat by a young defense attorney (played by Tom Cruise).

Daniel Kaffee is a junior Lieutenant, representing two marines who are charged with murdering a colleague at Guantanamo Bay. The whole thing is a top-notch, argot-laden court martial drama, but it can feel a bit tedious if you go in expecting a knockout feat in filmmaking.

Strong performances and a smart narrative make Rob Reiner's adaptation a sturdy American classic. Just don't get your hopes up for anything revolutionary! The visuals are standard and stripped back to focus on the dialogue, masterfully penned by Aaron Sorkin.

7. The Accused (1988)

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Starring Kelly McGillis, Jodie Foster, Bernie Coulson

Crime, Drama (1h 51m)

7.1 on IMDb92% on RT

"She was asking for it" is the reply most people give when Sarah Tobias (played by Jodie Foster) is viciously gang raped at a local dive bar. Three men take turns at her on a pinball machine while the customers cheer on.

Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, the rapists aren't easily prosecuted. Why? Because Sarah was boozy and flirty prior to the attack, and she doesn't exactly have the cleanest of histories.

These things should be irrelevant, but instead they get the perpetrators off with just nine months for reckless endangerment.

Sarah refuses to accept this. Wading through the debris of her trauma, she chops off her hair and rams her car into a witness's truck. Then, an attorney (played by Kelly McGillis) takes Sarah's case, kicking away the surrounding pressure to fold and accept the plea bargain.

The Accused closes with the haunting statistic that "in the United States a rape is reported every six minutes," and a quick Google search will tell you somebody is assaulted roughly every minute.

6. Philadelphia (1993)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Roberta Maxwell

Drama (2h 5m)

7.7 on IMDb81% on RT

Keep tissues on hand for this one. The smash of Tom Hanks breaking into the drama genre—having already smashed through a career of first-rate romances and comedies—could be heard a mile away.

His ordinary, bumbling, good-guy typecast was thrown to the wind when he played a young AIDS patient in Philadelphia, who gets prejudicially fired from his job at a law firm.

Having stayed in the closet for years, Andrew finds it increasingly difficult to hide his lesions. So, he ends up hiring a personal injury lawyer to call out his ex-company's illegal bigotry. Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington) is the only lawyer who will take his case.

Not only is Philadelphia an amazing (if heartbreaking) film, it re-routed Hollywood's attitude towards homosexuality onto a more positive trajectory and helped dismantle the lingering stigma around HIV/AIDS.

5. The Verdict (1982)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Starring Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden

Drama (2h 9m)

7.7 on IMDb89% on RT

Imagine Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons but in a real-life drama. His desk-side whiskey and reliance on ambulance chasing make Frank Galvin (played by Paul Newman) a little worse for wear.

Thus, his former partner Mickey Morrissey (played by Jack Warden) takes pity on him and offers Frank an assured cash settlement case. However, when Frank sees the victim—a comatose new mother who choked after anesthesia—he feels something reignite within him.

Frank is stirred to action and goes up against a Catholic hospital for medical malpractice. The Church and a string of doctors? That's ambitious, to say the least.

Usually the client is begging the lawyer not to settle, but here the victim's sister is even urging Frank to take the settlement cash. (Mostly so she can afford the mounting hospital bills...)

4. Erin Brockovich (2000)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, David Brisbin

Biography, Drama (2h 11m)

7.4 on IMDb85% on RT

If you enjoyed the whistleblowing suspense of Dark Waters, you best add Erin Brockovich to your watchlist, too. Erin Brockovich tackled a colossal case of company contamination, enduring despite how lengthy and detrimental it was to her personal life.

One individual versus an entire corporation is a massive undertaking, especially when the corporation has the means to bribe and document-drown their way out of trouble.

But Erin (played by Julia Roberts) still sticks with it after she discovers that PG&E were knowingly contaminating groundwater in Hinkley, California, leading to an upshoot in local illnesses and deaths.

Living paycheck to paycheck as a single mother of two small kids, Erin had no idea what she was getting into when landing a desk job. But once she did, Erin admirably rode it out nonetheless.

3. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Directed by Otto Preminger

Starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara

Drama, Mystery (2h 41m)

8.0 on IMDb100% on RT

Based on the novel by a real attorney of the Michigan Supreme Court, Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart as the small-town barrister Paul Biegler, who leaves his breezy fishing days to defend an army lieutenant.

Like most of Stewart's characters, Biegler is a friendly and charismatic member of the community who's well-liked and prone to a pep talk or two. However, his straightforward everyman nature is the perfect cover for his intellect, which he uses to find loopholes in the witness box.

Anatomy of a Murder is extremely realistic—and even screened in law schools—but also super entertaining. If you're in search of a classic legal drama that'll keep you on the edge of your seat, this is the one!

2. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Directed by Robert Mulligan

Starring Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton

Crime, Drama (2h 9m)

8.3 on IMDb93% on RT

Before our current age of countless adaptations and reboots, the act of turning a book into a movie was seen as quite risky.

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is perhaps the most famous in modern American literature. You wouldn't want to taint or dishonor such a legacy with a bad adaptation, would you?

But we can thank our lucky stars that Robert Mulligan did a second-to-none job of bringing Lee's story to screen and that Gregory Peck perfectly encapsulated the essence of his character Atticus Finch.

The single-father lawyer is like the personification of a warm hug. He's kind and thoughtful, with a deep comforting voice, who admirably desires to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves.

Set during the Great Depression, Atticus takes the case of an innocent African-American man who's accused of rape. Parallel to this is the plot of Atticus's daughter Scout (played by Mary Badham), who's coming-of-age in a South where things like starvation and lynching are normal.

1. 12 Angry Men (1957)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam

Crime, Drama (1h 36m)

9.0 on IMDb100% on RT

12 Angry Men takes place almost entirely in one room on a sweltering summer day in 1950s New York. A jury of twelve white men must decide if a teenage boy is guilty of killing his abusive father—and if so, whether he deserves to be sentenced to the electric chair.

The verdict is far from unanimous, causing the men to agonize over the trial's circumstantial evidence and unreliable witnesses. When everyone wants to vote guilty and move on with their lives, one juror courageously stands against them and wants to give the boy a fair shake.

The characters are only referred to by their juror numbers, and the static setting means 12 Angry Men is a bare-bones drama that derives all its power from its script, performances, and camerawork.

The way the actors move within the frame speaks to their ever-shifting stances, and the debates between opposing jurors are sculpted to perfection. Would you find him guilty?