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Erin Brockovich – Film Review

Erin Brockovich is a biographical movie and a litigation drama that centres around the real life story of the protagonist, Erin Brockovich, and her efforts to bring to justice a powerful corporation, which is involved in water contamination. Erin is a single mother who is given employment by her accident claims lawyer when she is unemployed. The movie recounts the environmental pollution class action law suit against Pacific Gas & Electric Company that was successfully fought by Erin’s employer, Ed Masry. In this case, the company was implicated in the dumping of deadly toxic waste in Hinkley, California, that resulted in the poisoning of the residents in Hinkley and the surrounding areas. The movie depicts the problems faced by ordinary people when fighting a corporate crime case against a powerful company. This is a classic radical criminology argument against orthodox criminology, wherein radical criminologists argue that the crimes of the rich and powerful often go unnoticed or unchallenged (Lynch, Stretesky, & Long, 2015).

The central message that the director is making in the movie relates to environmental pollution by a corporate giant and the difficulty in creating successful legal challenges to the corporation. The movie depicts white collar crime involving a powerful company and its effects on the stakeholders in the larger society. The stakeholders in the movie are primarily the residents of the locality in Hinkley, California and the surrounding areas. As such, the principal theme in the movie revolves around a common issue of corporate crime, which has also been studied by ‘green criminologists’ (Potter, 2010). In that sense, there is a strong parallel between the message in the movie and the green and radical criminology theory.

Green criminology theory or approach has included studies relating to regulation of pollution, corporate crime or white collar crime in the context of environmental harms and impacts as well as toxic waste disposal (South, 2014). All of these themes also find a place in the movie Erin Brockovich. The movie shows the contamination of groundwater in Hinkley, California with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. This is a toxic substance, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company has been paying the medical bills of the residents for years in a bid to keep the residents silent about the chromium contamination.

A common issue or problem in white collar crime with relation to environmental harm relates to the fact that seldom do the heads or CEOs of companies, face legal action, especially criminal law consequences for their actions. In the movie, Pacific, Gas & Electric company was responsible for contamination of the city water. Their actions led to the deaths and serious illnesses for local residents. None of the individuals involved in this corporate crime, was penalised; and the remedy given by the courts was in the nature of monetary compensation to victims, which is a tortious remedy. A parallel to this can be found in one of the worst industrial disasters of modern times, the Bhopal Gas tragedy in 1984, which saw the death of 16000 people were killed in Bhopal, India (Carroll, Brown, & Buchholtz, 2017, p. 311). The Union Carbide Corporation was responsible for the gas leak and despite clear indications of criminal negligence, the perpetrators of the crime were never prosecuted or received any punishment (Lamy, Masker, Bayley, Smith, & Owens, 2016, p. 189). This is also in line with the radical criminologist criticism of the criminal justice system as a system, which “replicates and reinforces social divisions within society” where the “criminal law can often be seen to be acting, predominantly, against the interests of the lower classes and the poor while serving the interests of the powerful” (Potter, 2010, p. 11). In the movie, the company is rich and powerful and the affected people, that is, the residents of Hinkley, are lower or lower middle class.

The movie’s imagery and symbolism is also interesting in its constant and consistent interplay between the powerful and the underdog. This is seen in the stark contrasts in the clothing, living environments and demeanour of the affected plaintiffs in the case, all of whom are shown to be middle class or lower class. These people are accepting and even naïve about their situation. Ultimately the movie chooses to focus on the protagonist, rather than the perpetrators or even the victims, as the message seems to be one of empowerment that one determined woman can bring to a situation otherwise skewed in favour of the powerful and rich (Rafter & Brown, 2011, p. 116).

Erin Brockovich is an important movie because of its depiction of social, political, criminological and ethical problems related to corporate crime and environment. The major theme in the movie relates to white collar environmental crime and the minor themes relate to bribery, deception and environmental harm. The ability of the rich and powerful corporations to commit corporate crimes of a serious nature and not face any liability for the same for a long time, is shown in the film. Here, an inter-relation can be seen between the power exuded by the corporation and what that power can buy. For instance, in the film, the company is able to convince Hinkley residents that their medical issues have nothing to do with the safe ‘chromium’ that is being discharged by the company. The company is even revered by some of the affected victims, because the company has spent its own money in providing medical help to them. This is a very unethical approach taken by the company but there are no questions asked against the company until Erin comes along.

The most important underlying theme remains the ability of the powerful to escape the criminal liability for their actions causing environmental harm and human harm. The movie is close to reality and is believable in that sense because it depicts an actual class action, which was successful in bringing monetary compensation to victims of corporate white collar crime. Although, monetary compensation was given, no one was prosecuted.

Finally, it can be said that Erin Brockovich succeeds in creating a narrative that begs consideration to the aspects of radical and green criminology wherein the criminal justice system is critiqued due to its inability to deal with corporate crimes, which affect a great many more people as compared to those affected by the commission of an orthodox crime. Yet, the legal process is extremely slow to prosecute corporate or white collar criminals.



    1. Carroll, A., Brown, J., & Buchholtz, A. (2017). Business and Society: Ethics, Sustainability and Stakeholder Management (10 ed.). New York: Cengage. /SB10001424052970204630904577058111041127168 [Accessed 5 February 2017].
    2. Lamy, S., Masker, J., Bayley, J., Smith, S., & Owens, P. (2016). Introduction to Global Politics (4 ed.). Oxford : Oxford University Press.
    3. Lynch, M. J., Stretesky, P. B., & Long, M. A. (2015). Environmental justice: a criminological perspective . Environ. Res. Lett. , 10, 1-6.
    4. Potter, G. (2010). What is green criminology. Sociology Review, 20(2), 8-12.
    5. Rafter, N., & Brown, M. (2011). Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture . NY: NYU Press.
    6. South, N. (2014). Green criminology: Reflections, connections, horizons. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 3(2), 5.

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