In A Time to Kill a contemporary (1996) trial provokes events (cross burnings, physical attacks, arson, riots, a kidnapping) that seem temporally out of place. It is not that such events could not have happened in 1996 or that they even could not happen today. It is rather that all of the events taken together seem an unlikely pastiche constructed from the past seventy years—a collection of the worst possible examples of racial hatred. I liked this film for the acting and the narrative. However, the historical details concern me. I am not sure the film is historically as accurate as it could be. I worry that extreme manifestations of racial terrorism and hysteria have been appropriated by the film to enhance its sensationalist and entertainment value. I may be wrong about this—further research into Klan activities in Mississippi during the 1990s will support or refute my point.
All historical films are inaccurate to some extent—some more than others. Often the inaccuracy may not matter. The point of the film may be simply to entertain, to divert the audience. But when a film has as its intent to deliver a message about the state of American race relations, the stakes are higher, and the need for accuracy more pressing.
A Time to Kill means to examine an ethical paradox or allegory. It concerns a black man named Carl Lee Hailey whose 10-year-old daughter is attacked, brutally beaten, and raped by young white hoodlums. The young men are quickly arrested by the local sheriff, who himself happens to be black. Convinced that the young men will be found innocent by a local jury, the girl's father sneaks into the court house and shoots the two men to death as they enter to stand for their indictment.
Everyone sympathizes with Carl Lee. There is little doubt that the two young men attacked his daughter. They're toothless rednecks who drive a pickup, swig beer, shout racial epithets, and behave in a menacing way to black citizens of the community. There is nothing redeeming about them. Other than the fact that they're shot down without benefit of a trial, there's nothing to find in their defense. And it's true as well (at least according to the film) that a white jury in this particular Mississippi county might find these hooligans innocent, or at least not issue a sentence appropriate to their crimes. On the other hand, Carl Lee has committed a vigilante murder. He's violated the law and denied these men justice.
The point of this arrangement of events in the film is to portray a crime and an accused man who might be found innocent and who might be found guilty, with no disputation of the facts, only of their significance and their interpretation. As one disbarred lawyer in the film remarks to Carl Lee's defense attorney, "If you win this case, justice will prevail, and if you lose, justice will also prevail. Now that is a strange case." It's ironic, of course, in a pointed way, that the man accused of vigilante justice is a black man, and that his victims are white—a reversal of the usual circumstances that led to numerous lynchings in the American South and elsewhere through the seven or so decades of the 20th century.
A Time to Kill doesn't investigate this legal dilemma very thoroughly. Any film about theoretical interpretations of the law faces a challenge. How do you make such a film entertaining? Here, however, the film clearly sides with the accused and with his lawyer, Jake Tyler Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), especially with the various problems encountered by Jake and his colleagues and family as the local chapter of the Klan begins to flex its muscle.
About the Klan: this film gives it too much credit. One of the murdered men has a brother with Klan associations, and he meets with the leader of a Klan chapter elsewhere in the state. He is encouraged to recruit members to join a local chapter of the Klan (one of them a police officer) to take action on behalf of the white victims and against those defending Carl Lee. They effectively wage a campaign of terror—they issue numerous threats, beat up the husband of Jake's secretary (he dies), kidnap a law student who is assisting him (Sandra Bullock), burn down Jake's house, attempt to shoot him as he leaves the courthouse (instead seriously wounding a police officer), and in general wage a war of terror.
The Klan's presence in the film makes clear that despite all the superficial signs of a changed Mississippi, beneath the surface there is still racism. Yet the film does a good job of making clear that white racism is still an issue even without the Klan. The mostly white jury seems headed towards a guilty verdict against Carl Lee—white juries do tend to convict black defendants more often than white defendants. The film shows several scenes in which the jury deliberates Carl Lee's guilt or innocence—it's clear that his fate is in danger. Jake's final presentation to the jury hinges on his asking the jurors to imagine the victim of the crime for which Carl Lee took revenge as a white girl rather than a black girl. "How would you feel," he in as much says, if this girl were white? He plays on the jurors' racism to make them see the case from Carl Lee's perspective.
The Klan is an unnecessary additional means of making these points clear. In 1996, the Klan might have appeared to demonstrate at such a trial, and its members might have made various folks uncomfortable, but they probably could not have waged the kind of terror campaign the film portrays. A fundamental paucity of Klan members and of intelligence, and a lack of community support, would probably not have allowed the Klan to do in reality what it does in the film. If the film had been set in 1925 or even 1965, we would have a different situation perhaps. But not in 1996.
A more successful film that demonstrates how racially charged incidents can provoke a community to erupt into riot and discord is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). I'd be surprised if Lee's film were not in the back of director Joel Schumacher's mind as he worked on A Time to Kill. Schumacher seeks to show how the killing of the white murderers provokes a situation that makes clear the hidden racial divisions in the town. One scene in particular, shot from overhead, shows a face-off between members of the Klan and their supporters and members of the black community and their supporters. There are similar scenes in Do the Right Thing. Such scenes seek to historicize the event the film portrays—to make it an emblem of the racial struggles and themes that characterize so much of American history. Thus it is no surprise that Roger Ebert, in his Chicago Sun-Times review of the film, calls it "a skillfully constructed morality play" (July 26, 1996).
Time to Kill illuminates racial struggle through the perspective of white participants who are sympathetic to the cause of civil rights, but who have never been called to put their reputations and lives on the line for that cause. When they do that, they discover both the risks involved in the position they have taken, and the ambiguities and uncertainties in their own attitudes. Ebert rightly points out that the film doesn't do much with presenting the view of the black characters. On the other hand, one film can't do everything.
Perhaps the main defect in this generally well made and entertaining film is that although it seeks to portray a legally and perhaps morally ambiguous situation (a vigilante killing) as a way of uncovering the fundamentals of American race relations, it is in itself not ambiguous. It's easy to determine what the film's point of view is. There's no doubt about the sympathy it expresses for Carl Lee and his feelings as the father of a brutally beaten and raped girl. The film doesn't take the kinds of risks this topic might have led it to.
Oddly, and ironically (given American history), the film does seem to suggest that a finding of innocent for a man who without hesitation admits to killing two other men to avenge their crimes against his daughter is just. It sides with a vigilante murder, a position that raises all sorts of moral and legal issues that the film seems aware of but that it largely evades. Clearly this is a post 1960s, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate film.
Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney in this film does a fine job. His accent is authentic. The film was made in Corinth, Mississippi, and the buildings and scenes in the countryside lend authentic local color and detail that give this film a clear and convincing sense of place. Patrick McGoohan as the ominously named presiding judge Omar Noose is cranky and full of character but somewhat out of place. So too is Donald Sutherland as Jake's alcoholic disbarred mentor, Lucien Wilbanks. Samuel L. Jackson is effective as Carl Lee Hailey—no surprise there.