• Entertainment

The 27 Constitutional Amendments Explained in Movies

Explaining the 27 amendments of the US Constitution by highlighting some of the best Constitution movies, with videos, for each of the Constitutional Amendments. Besides the freedoms promised in the Constitution, Americans have a lot to be proud of. Our BBQ is some of the most flavorful in the world. We were the first country to send people to the moon. We somehow managed to carve images of our favorite presidents on the side of a freaking MOUNTAIN, and I'm still not sure how that works. Three more words: Toddlers. And. Tiaras. But beyond all these other achievements, two aspects of American life really are the envy of the world: our Constitution and our Hollywood film industry.

What are the greatest movies about the Constitution? This list of movies on Amendments pairs a film clip with each article of our Bill of Rights, the cornerstone of our American understanding of freedom, and then all the other amendments to our Constitution over the years. Mainly, these films will highlight the dire importance of these rights and restrictions, but sometimes they will simply relate to the discussion in a tangential way, because a lot of these amendments are kind of odd and obscure.
  • 5

    Amendment V

    Video: YouTube

    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    Errol Morris' mesmerizing 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, eventually led to the release of prisoner Randall Adams, wrongfully accused of the murder of a police officer. What becomes painfully clear during the film is not only Adams' innocence (and the guilt of supposed witness Dan Harris for the crime), but that the Dallas authorities railroaded the aimless drifter because of either general animosity towards his lifestyle or a desire to secure a death sentence. (Harris, only 16 at the time, would have been ineligible for capital punishment).

    The ideas contained within the 5th and 6th Amendments are supposed to act against this kind of malfeasance. It doesn't always work, which brings us back to the case for freedom of speech and the press, to bring to light violations of the law by the government, as in the case of Randall Adams. If Morris hadn't made this film and brought this evidence to light, Adams may very well have remained in prison for the rest of his life.
  • 6

    Amendment VI

    Video: YouTube

    In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

    In Orson Welles' The Trial, the great director uses his bold, impressionistic style to transform Franz Kafka's novel into a frenzied totalitarian nightmare. For Josef K. (a brilliant Anthony Perkins), worse than the actual captivity is the mystery behind it.

    The lack of explanation for why he's being held takes on an existential nature: Who could possibly hate him this much, to punish him in this way? Would it be better to simply be killed or locked away forever with no hope of escape, rather than continuing to wonder about his fate indefinitely?
  • 7

    Amendment VII

    Video: YouTube

    In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

    It would feel wrong to not choose 12 Angry Men as the film that best encapsulates the ideal of the trial-by-jury system. Henry Fonda uses reasoned argument and logic to fight for justice. What's more American in spirit than that? The notion that anything can be worked out through rationally and in the spirit of compromise.

    It doesn't always work out that way in real life, of course, and Sidney Lumet's film can seem a bit sunny and overly-optimistic in how easily some of the prejudiced jury members are swayed. But we're talking about American ideals here, people. What these documents really seem to stand for behind all the rhetoric and the parsing and the divergent scholarly interpretations. The notion that citizens can only be judged fairly by other citizens, that people will put their differences aside to make an even-handed and honest judgement of guilt of innocence, and that Truth will win the day.
  • 8

    Amendment VIII

    Video: YouTube

    Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

    I'll break this one up, because there's two different issues to discuss in this one amendment. First, that "excessive fines imposed" thing. I know, technically, the FCC doesn't necessarily count as a wing of the federal government, but they still impose these ridiculous fines for obscenity or whatever, essentially controlling media content by extortion.

    Howard Stern's Private Parts perfectly exemplifies this kind of bizarre behavior. The zany, haphazard rules make no sense. ("I can't say 'big cock,' but you can say 'big cock coming out of my mouth?'") What can be done on the air thus becomes a simple matter of economics. You can't say "boner" on the air just in case the government decides to fine you for it. If the penalties are so great that a single agency can determine what is and is not appropriate for television and radio, those fines are "excessive."

    Second, "cruel and unusual punishment." In the tremendous, intense I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, based on a true story, we witness first-hand the horrors to which wrongfully accused James Allen (Paul Muni) is subjected by a harsh penal system. Forced to labor in the field for endless hours every day, fed nothing but tasteless gruel, Allen's brutal chain gang experience robs him of his humanity. Even after his escape, hiding out under an assumed name in Chicago, he's haunted by memories of the gang and constantly terrified he will be found out and sent back for more punishment.

    A decorated WWI veteran, we come to see Allen's predicament as one essentially forced upon him by an uncaring society. With no job opportunities, he unintentionally finds himself on the street in a community of criminals. After being promised his freedom, he's cruelly tricked into additional years of undue suffering. Eventually, the United States government will push this previously honorable, proud man deep into the life of crime they always accused him of leading. Once you are in this chaotic system of authoritarian beurocracy, director Melvyn LeRoy seems to insist, there is no hope of escape.