The Accused (1988)

The Accused is a 1988 American legal drama film directed by Jonathan Kaplan, written by Tom Topor and starring Jodie FosterKelly McGillisBernie CoulsonLeo RossiAnn HearnCarmen ArgenzianoSteve Antin and Tom O’Brien. In the film Sarah Tobias, a young waitress is gang-raped by three men at a local bar. She and district attorney Kathryn Murphy set out to prosecute the rapists as well as the men who encouraged them.

Set in Washington state, but filmed in VancouverBritish Columbia, Canada, it is loosely based on the 1983 gang rape of Cheryl Araujo in New Bedford, Massachusetts and the resulting trial which received national coverage. The film explores the themes of classismmisogynyPosttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)slut shamingvictim blaming and women’s empowerment.

The Accused premiered at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival, where it competed for the Golden Bear. It was released in limited theatres on October 14, 1988 by Paramount Pictures and was highly controversial upon release, mostly due to its graphic representation of gang rape.

The film became a critical and commercial success grossing over $37 million worldwide, against its $6 million budget and was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the Top 10 films of the year. Reviewers praised the film’s audacity as well authenticity of the portrayal of subject matter and was lauded for being the first film to deal with the horrors of rape and its aftermath on the victim’s life.

Foster’s performance was highly acclaimed, and marked her breakthrough into adult roles earning numerous accolades including the Academy Award for Best Actress.

On April 18, 1987 at a local bar called “The Mill”, 24-year-old working-class woman Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) is brutally gang raped by three drunk bar patrons, while onlookers cheer them on. Assistant district attorney Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) is assigned to the rape case. Her superior instructs Murphy to offer a plea bargain with the rape defendants that requires some jail time. They make a plea bargain to charges of reckless endangerment, and are sentenced to prison. Sarah is enraged by the deal, as there is no acknowledgment on the record that the men raped her.

Sarah rams a pickup truck after recognizing its driver as one of the patrons from the bar who had been cheering during the rape, and being outraged by his crude proposition of her. Her injuries require hospitalization. After this, Murphy decides to prosecute the men who cheered the rape for criminal solicitation. Sarah’s friend Sally, a waitress at the bar where the rape took place, picks three men out of a line-up as those who encouraged the attackers. They get three different defense attorneys for the ensuing trial.

Sarah testifies that she was raped. College student Kenneth Joyce (Bernie Coulson), a friend of one of the rapists, testifies to watching the rape before he made a 911 call to notify police. After Murphy’s closing statement and a single summation from the three defense lawyers, the jury deliberates for a long time. They ask several times for Joyce’s testimony to be reread to them.

In the end, the jury convicts the three defendants. As the trial provides testimony and evidence that the men raped Sarah, the three men already serving prison time for reckless endangerment are unlikely to be granted parole.


“Jonathan and I looked at a lot of old films, and we couldn’t find one that had explored the subject. There were almost no movies where the subject of the movie is rape. There are many movies that have a rape incident in them, but The Accused is about rape, there’s no other subject. And it’s about two women; there’s no man who comes to rescue them. It’s a very tough subject.”

—Topor explaining the importance to make the film


Screenwriter Tom Topor was inspired to write the film after the real trial of Cheryl Araujo became national news. Dawn Steel called him to ask if he’d be interested in doing a movie on the subject and following which Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe from Paramount Pictures, where signed on to produce the film. Topor interviewed 30 rape victims and numerous rapists, prosecutors, defense attorneys and scrub nurses.

Jonathan Kaplan met Steel following the dawn of Araujo’s trail and discussed the possibility of having a film on the subject. The original draft of the script focused on the lawyer’s story while the rape victim was just that — a victim, a prop. Kaplan wanted the rape victim character to be front and center with the lawyer, while the script also had the pool table (similar from the real life incident), but the producers were concerned of being sued, so it was changed to a pinball machine.

Following the test screenings, the film received the lowest scores in the history of Paramount. According to Lansing, “The audience thought that Jodie’s character deserved the rape.” The studio executives wanted to put the film on the shelf and were looking for ways to not get it released. Lansing asked for another screening with just women. She got that screening, and it went through the roof. Of the 20 women in the room, 18 had experience with rape — that either they or someone they knew had been raped. When tested again months later, it got among the highest scores in studio’s history.

In its opening weekend in North AmericaThe Accused was #1 at the box office, grossing $4.3 million in 796 theaters. The film grossed a total of $37.07 million worldwide, against a $6 million budget becoming a major commercial success.

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