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“The Accused,” breaking the silence around sexual assault

EDS NOTE: This review touches on topics of rape and sexual assault which may be upsetting or disturbing for some readers.

5 out of 5 stars

Looking for an older film to watch on a night in? “The Accused,” released in 1988, provides a gut-churning story full of raw emotion and continuously relevant societal issues. Actress Jody Foster plays a convincing portrayal of Sarah Tobias, whom the movie follows, earning her both an Oscar and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. Tobias’ character is loosely based on 21-year-old Cheryl Araujo who was attacked in a bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1983.

In America, one out of every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. The chances of experiencing sexual violence are three times as likely for women aged 18 to 24 who are in college, and four times as likely for women of this age group not enrolled in college. 

After surviving being sexually assaulted by three men in a bar with other men playing active witness, Tobias seeks legal ramifications. Her lawyer, Kathryn Murphy, is played by Kelly McGillis, who is a survivor of rape herself. 

Initially, McGillis is wary of bringing Tobias’ case to court because she fears that Tobias’s loud-mouthed, partying tendencies would be used against her, hindering her ability to come across as a reliable witness in a court system with victim-blaming history. 

Instead of taking the risk, McGillis meets with the rapists’ lawyers and reduces the charges to “aggravated assault.” Outraged at the injustice of settling for a lesser charge, Tobias convinces McGillis to take the case back to court, this time with intentions of putting away the cheering bystanders for criminal solicitation.

The aspect of rape culture that the film really highlights is that it’s not only the individual who physically rapes another that is to blame, it’s the social systems that produce violent men and the lack of legal action and justice in court. Tobias refused to carry the weight of the silence that some women choose in fear of being victimized themselves. The film broke barriers around the reality of sexual violence against women. 

“‘The Accused’ was one of the first films to explore some of the complex issues around rape — including victim blaming and the responsibility of bystanders — that remain ever-present, even 28 years later, in today’s culture,” stated Rebecca Ford in her 2016 Hollywood Reporter article

When the rape scene is finally shown near the end of the movie as a flashback during the testimony, the three minutes of the attack feel like forever. It’s disturbing and hard to watch, and that is how the audience should feel in order to understand the trauma that victims of sexual assault go through. 

“The truth is, I’m playing a victim. I didn’t need to learn how to be that. I think I needed just to be free and feel like somebody who is that age [in her early 20s],” Foster told the Hollywood Reporter.

“The Accused” is a title that, in itself, reinforces the culture of sexual violence by making the perpetrators sound like the victims. In her heartbreaking testimony on the witness stand, Tobias will convince you otherwise. The movie is an important message on what victims have to go through after their assault just to obtain some justice. 


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