A Jury of Her Peers

1980
Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Sally Heckel
Directed by Sally Heckel
VHS, color, 30 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Ethics, Film Studies, Gender Studies, Law, Women's Studies


Reviewed by Mike Boedicker, Danville Public Library, Illinois

Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 7/7/2005

Originally released in 1980 and the winner of many awards, this well-regarded feminist film still holds up, due largely to its intelligent and understated treatment of a topic that is frequently sensationalized (think of the Lifetime Channel’s endless Women in Jeopardy movies). Adapted from the 1917 short story by Susan Glaspell, A Jury of Her Peers is set entirely in the austere home of the Burkes, a childless farming couple, circa 1900. As the story begins, Mrs. Burke mechanically informs visiting neighbors that her husband lies dead in bed, strangled with a noose, and she hasn’t a clue how it happened. Some prominent local men come to investigate - two accompanied by their wives, Mrs. Peterson and Mrs. Hale - but are left with more questions than answers. Despite the circumstantial evidence against Mrs. Burke, the men have difficulty accepting her as a suspect, for she apparently had no motive. To the women, a motive is easier to imagine. Mrs. Burke herself is seen only briefly, as most of the story concerns the attempts of Mrs. Peterson and Mrs. Hale to come to terms with the crime and, as mounting evidence implicates Mrs. Burke, to shield her from prosecution.

A Jury of Her Peers is not about domestic violence per se but rather its after-effects, a meditation on the nature of justice in a society where women are often denied justice. While the men are heard poking around the crime scene upstairs, Mrs. Peterson and Mrs. Hale poke around the kitchen of a neighbor they’ve never really known, examining Mrs. Burke’s few possessions and piecing together a bleak profile of her life, one full of abuse - mental if not physical - loneliness, and despair. Speculation aside, they uncover disturbing physical evidence indicting Mrs. Burke, including a dead bird hidden in her sewing box, its neck strangled by a noose in the fashion of Mr. Burke’s death. Reflecting on their own subjugation, the women hide the evidence and say nothing to the men. “We live close together and yet far apart. We all go through the same things,” Mrs. Hale says to Mrs. Peterson, and herself, betraying at once her solidarity with the accused but also her guilt at not being a better neighbor.

Marred only by some staginess and uneven acting, A Jury of Her Peers is recommended for public libraries and academic libraries that support Women’s Studies and Ethics curricula.

Awards

  • Academy Award Nomination for Best Dramatic Live-Action Short
  • American Film Festival, Blue Ribbon
  • Australian Teachers of Media, ATOM Award
  • Santa Fe Winter Film Exposition, Best Dramatic Film
  • Sinking Creek Film Celebration, Judges’ Award