Volume 14 Number 5
Movie Power
01 October 2001

How often do we see in person someone whose daring and perseverance have inspired a hit movie? Rarely, for most of us. So it was a special treat to see and hear Erin Brockovich at the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington, DC. I'd already seen Erin Brockovich, the movie, and admired her relentless search for proof that water pollution by a large utility was the cause of widespread illness in a small community in California. With the help of friends and a major law firm she fought for what became the largest ever direct-action lawsuit settlement in US history.
The film, starring Julia Roberts as Brockovich, shows what Hollywood can do to portray those who are making a positive difference in communities across the world. The film also supported critic Michael Medved's contention that box-office hits don't need to be filled with sex, violence and gore. Medved, the author of the book Hollywood vs America, has long argued that the movie industry would be more, not less, prosperous if it produced films that did not seek to appeal to the baser instincts of audiences.

When I spoke with Medved briefly a few months ago he noted the box-office success of Remember the Titans, which was based on the true story of how TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, racially integrated its football team in 1972. The initial racial tensions and hostility evaporated as the players began to care for each other, and respect their coach, as they fought their way to a state championship. A powerful film at a time when racial problems continued to dog America.

Erin Brockovich documents the power of one wholly dedicated to a cause she knew was right. Time and again in her NPC talk, she cited the test of rightness—if something is right, then it's worth the maximum investment of one's time and energy. Her driving spirit was fed by a father who told her early in life always to 'press on'. Her mother, meanwhile, taught her 'stick-to-itiveness'.

Now an environmental activist, Brockovich strives to intensify her audiences' awareness of the public health threat of toxic chemicals. Without the film, those audiences wouldn't be there. Brockovich is a bundle of energy with unquestioned courage and fortitude. At the same time, she doesn't seem obsessed with the limelight the film guarantees her—she even failed to attend the Academy Awards ceremony the night Julia Roberts received the 'best actress' Oscar for her role. Brockovich said she had a sick child so she stayed home ('I saw it on TV').

We need many more such movies. They needn't all be documentaries or based on true stories. But they should, at least occasionally, inspire their audiences. Where are the drama teachers who can motivate their students to make and perform in films that can make a difference, that can help build a more just and peaceful society?

NPC President Richard Ryan said a ballroom packed with 300 people on a hot August day in Washington, proved the interest in Erin Brockovich. It was proof, too, of the power of film.

Robert Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for the 'Cincinnati Enquirer'. He lives in Alexandria, Va, USA.
Robert Webb

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