A Time to Kill is a 1996 film based on a book by John Grisham that takes place in a relatively small community in Mississippi. A courtroom drama, A Time to Kill follows the case of a Black man who is on trial for murdering two racist White men who viciously attacked and raped his daughter. Needing legal representation, he seeks the help of a local lawyer with a struggling law practice. The pair face off against a prosecutor who is hoping to use the case to advance his career and the murdered men’s supporters who are seeking revenge for their deaths.
A young Black girl, Tonya (Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly), is walking home from buying groceries and runs into two White men who are out joyriding and causing trouble. Billy Ray Cobb (Nicky Katt) and Pete Willard (Doug Hutchison) have mullets but let’s not stereotype. They’re two raggedy-looking White guys driving around annoying and pestering residents of the Black community within this town.
The pair are merely a nuisance at first but things take a turn when they come across Tonya who is walking alone on what I would consider a desolate road. They viciously attack the child. Assaulting, raping, and attempting to hang her before leaving her for dead. Fortunately, she’s found and taken to a hospital where she survives her injuries.
Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), Tonya’s father, is concerned for his daughter’s safety and health. There was a similar case in another nearby town where four White young men raped a Black girl and got away with the crime. With that in mind, Carl has little faith that his daughter will be able to get justice in a town like his.
Taking matters into his own hands Carl arrives at the courthouse when the two guys are going to be arraigned. Opening fire on the men, Carl kills them both and wounds a member of law enforcement who was helping to provide security. He intended to kill the two young men but not harm the police officer who was hit in the crossfire. With that Carl now finds himself on trial for his vigilante act.
It seems as though up to this point there might not have been open hostility in the town between the two races. The White residents mostly live within the town in what appear to be nicer homes. The Black residents live on the outskirts of town and while their houses aren’t ramshackle, they seem to be older and less fancy or well-maintained.
Carl Lee appeals to Jake Tyler Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) a local lawyer who had previously done some legal work for his brother. With that, you now have what is squaring up to be a courtroom drama. On one side, you have McConaughey playing the defense attorney. On the other side, you have Kevin Spacey playing the prosecutor, Rufus Buckley.
Buckley is currently the district attorney but has ambitions to become governor. Winning this case would be a tremendous opportunity for him to further increase his chances of being elected. The case is also important to Jake because it would present an opportunity to maybe get some attention and drum up business for his struggling legal practice. He has a partner in the firm but he has some issues with alcoholism and has lost his law license.
On the surface, you have these two sides that are fighting this legal battle. But they also have other motivations that are pushing them to try to win the case. Sure there’s the glory of winning the case in and of itself but also the long-term benefits and opportunities that it might bring for their careers.
This is a relatively small town where there’s probably not a lot going on. And given the nature of the rape and assault of Tonya, many members of the community had gathered at the courthouse. Before that case even began, people had likely already taken sides. When the two men were killed in the courtroom, their mother and brother were watching as were several other members of the community. Such a case would already have some simmering hostilities but the two men being white supremacists creates further division and adds to the tension.
It’s not surprising that Billy Ray and Pete receive support from their friends and family. But Billy Ray’s brother Freddie Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland) and a friend decide that something needs to be done about this. Nevermind that the two men had been out looking for trouble and found it. Their friends and family still view them as having been wronged. They pay little attention to the harm that has been done to this little girl who was minding her own business. Instead, they focus on the loss of their loved ones.
I understand them feeling upset but they’re delusional for carrying on like they’re the wronged party. Freddie gathers with friends and they take it upon themselves to establish a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. They feel as though things are getting out of hand. America is changing, and they believe they have to fight to not only get revenge for Billy Ray and Pete but also to fight against these changing tides. They take issue with Black people having the nerve to fight back and defend themselves or seek vengeance against White people that have done them wrong.
To play devil’s advocate, it wasn’t the smartest idea for Carl to kill these two men out of revenge for his daughter. First, they hadn’t gone to trial. While I understand his distrust of the system, I also understand waiting to see how things might have worked out. Tonya is his daughter who he loves and wants to protect. He wanted to get some type of retribution to make them and their loved ones feel his pain.
But he has his wife, three sons, and especially Tonya. She experienced a traumatic event that has changed her life and even after healing physically, she will need all the support she can get to cope emotionally and psychologically. If Carl Lee is convicted and goes to jail or worse, is executed, he won’t be there to help provide the support that she needs. I understand the urge to get revenge and make these men pay for what they did. But risking sitting in jail for decades or being executed would leave his daughter without her father at a time when she needs him the most.
The smarter thing would have been to let the case play out and in the meantime, offer your daughter the support that she needs. If we’re suspending disbelief, it would have made more sense to shoot them after they get off and claim it was a crime of passion or in defense of others. But that would have changed the movie.
Sticking with the story as its written, Carl Lee is facing the death penalty. He happens to know an attorney so that’s who he appeals to for help. But let’s say if he didn’t know this attorney, and had to rely on a public defender, that might change things. There’s a scene where the sheriff and deputies bring Billy Ray and Pete to the jail after they’ve been arrested. They’re placed in a cell by themselves so it’s just the two of them and we don’t see any other White prisoners. Yet, when the camera moves to the cell next to them we see that quite a few Black men are being held together in that cell.
We don’t have deep insight into the community at that point in A Time to Kill. But there is a clear disparity between the representation of races in the jail. That disparity is noteworthy because there’s a conversation about the population in the area being about 20% Black and otherwise White. In some of the surrounding counties, the Black population is the majority or makes up a greater percentage of the population. Here in this county where Black people are the minority within the community, they are seemingly the majority being held in jail. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t necessarily reflect the percentage of people committing crimes, just those being held in jail.
There is some discussion about attempting to get justice within the justice system or simply moving through the system as an individual. Carl committed a crime as a Black man in a predominantly White county. There’s a good chance that he will end up with a White jury. And if he is judged by a White jury, there’s a good chance that he’s going to be convicted and might receive a death sentence.
This is a man who works a regular job. He’s a blue-collar worker and not wealthy at all. To mount a proper legal defense would cost quite a bit of money. I believe Jake estimated it would be about $50,000. And that’s $50,000 in 1980s money which was a lot then and adjusted for inflation would be quite a bit more in the present. Carl Lee doesn’t have that kind of money but thinks he might be able to put together $10,000.
Let’s take a step back from his particular case. Just imagine being on trial and defending yourself in such a case would cost about $50,000. How many people have that kind of money laying about or through whatever means would be able to obtain that kind of money? How do you mount a vigorous defense if it costs money that you don’t have?
Carl Lee hopes to come up with $10,000 but realizes even that isn’t so easy to put together. The bank won’t extend him any kind of credit, because it’s his first time in prison, and they’re worried about being able to get back their money. In addition, he’s lost the job at which he’s worked for 20 years after missing just five days. His family still needs to survive. How are they going to continue to support themselves while also providing the funds to fight his court case?
That’s another part of why I feel it was an emotional and seemingly illogical move to kill these two individuals in such a manner. It’s going to make his life very complicated. But then as I was writing this review, I began to think that it was kind of smart though risky.
The circumstances of the assault and Carl Lee shooting the men in the courthouse in front of all those people would lead one to believe that he’s not thinking logically. That he’s so blinded by hurt and rage that he does something illogical and makes no effort to escape justice seems like a good setup for a plea of temporary insanity. Well played.
There’s an increasingly ominous feeling that tensions that have been brewing beneath the town’s surface are going to break into the open. People begin attempting to intimidate Jake, his practice, and the people close to him before it gives way to less subtle threats. They’re hoping that with enough pressure he might drop the case, creating a path to an easy guilty verdict.
On the prosecution’s side, they’re angling to manipulate the situation so they’re in the best position to win. They discuss the county’s demographics and how best they can swing things to ensure that they get a predominantly White jury. Buckley also speaks about trying to get a judge that might be sympathetic to them. He resorts to sending alcohol to Jake’s partner who is an alcoholic to render him unable to assist.
Usually, with movies of this nature, you might see the crime, and then they just launch into the courtroom drama but there’s a slower build-up here. It’s not just people getting on the witness stand and the presentation of evidence. There’s some discussion in the lead-up to the trial about how juries are put together and manipulating little details leading up to a court case helps to better ensure the likelihood of getting your desired outcome.
Whether or not a defendant can afford a good defense is key. But so is where the trial takes place as that affects the composition of the jury. And then there are all of these other little levers that you can adjust before the trial that can then have a tremendous impact on the verdict.
Outside of the courtroom, Freddie Cobb and his friends who have formed a local Klan group are stirring up trouble. In a sense, they are juxtaposed against the NAACP which is a false equivalence. I don’t have an issue with the NAACP nor am I its biggest fan but it feels icky to have them facing off against the Klan to control the narrative and sentiment in the community. In this instance, the NAACP is a real organization but also serves as a stand-in for similar organizations and individuals.
In these types of cases where some crime has been committed against a Black person and race is a factor, they tend to get involved. When you have these kinds of situations the press is used to generate attention in hopes of getting some kind of justice. It’s often needed to get the ball moving or to keep everyone honest. Some people get involved because they genuinely want to do some good and see justice done but others rush in with ulterior motives. Their involvement is really a ploy to get press for themselves.
You might have people requesting donations supposedly on behalf of the individual and/or their family. Think of when a person dies or has some traumatic experience and some random person pops up with a GoFundMe. But the exact plans for the funds might be unclear if stated at all. Before strategies are discussed or plans are put in place, there are calls for money. Others rush in and attach themselves to the situation and take it upon themselves to become the spokesperson.
A legal team is put together for Carl Lee but under the guise of consideration for potential ramifications of the case, the NAACP offers to step in and provide help. Representatives from the organization push for replacing Jake with lawyers from the NAACP’s legal defense arm. To be fair, Jake wants to get paid like anyone else as there are associated expenses. Yet, he has been there from the outset and has been putting in effort despite Carl’s money situation still being in limbo. They also have a past relationship as Jake previously represented Carl Lee’s brother.
I get that mounting a vigorous defense requires money. But seemingly before they even make contact with Carl to discuss the legal strategy or build rapport, they’ve already begun raising money. They’ve gone to the community and appealed to the local church to fundraise. It was implied that the money they gathered would be used to help Carl Lee’s defense but also his family, Tonya in particular. Obviously, they’ll have expenses as well if they step in as Carl’s lawyers. But in this instance, they’re taking all of the money for their legal expenses but haven’t given any to Carl’s family.
I would give the NAACP the benefit of the doubt that this isn’t actually how they operate in real life. To be quite honest I wish that the filmmakers used a made-up organization’s name instead of the actual NAACP because it feels like a specific attack on them. Their representatives seem like shady hustlers.
For example, there is a little man with gray hair who appeals to the reverend to raise money through the church and take a cut of that money for himself as an administrative fee. People and organizations using these situations to enrich themselves is a valid point but it wasn’t fair to specifically single out the NAACP.
Yet, it’s especially valid in light of recent unfortunate events regarding racially motivated acts of violence against Black people. There have been several activists and organizations rushing in only for it to be found out that they’ve collected all this money and can’t show how it’s been put to use. That or they’ve used their proximity to these situations to become influencers and obtain cushy jobs and/or purchase assets.
This is a two-hour-plus movie and while it’s technically a courtroom drama, just about the last hour or so takes place in the actual courtroom. Much of A Time to Kill is the lead-up to the two sides facing off in court. In addition, you still have the simmering battle going on outside the courtroom between the side that supports Carl Lee and the side that supports openly racist child rapists.
It’s quite telling that the jury is sequestered but they’re out to dinner early on in the trial. They’re not supposed to be sharing notes or discussing the trial at this point. But they take an informal poll to see where things stand. One person thinks Carl Lee is innocent, four people are undecided, and the rest believe he’s guilty. The polling in and of itself isn’t an issue because it’s still early. But what’s troubling is that one of the jurors refers to Carl Lee as the N-word and states his belief that he will be found guilty.
This is something that’s kind of touched upon within A Time to Kill. What leads to this whole situation is the belief that with this situation taking place in the South things will go awry. First that the two White men who raped and nearly killed this little Black girl wouldn’t be seriously prosecuted and if convicted that they would not receive a sentence fitting the seriousness of the crime. Second that this Black man now on trial for the murder of these two White men would not receive a fair trial. That he wouldn’t be treated in the same way that a White man might be treated under these circumstances.
It’s going to be very difficult to get the right judge and jury while also dealing with the prosecutor. If you have this individual on the jury who openly uses the N-word to describe Black people, what’s the likelihood that he’s going to be unbiased? You’re fighting an uphill battle rather than starting from a neutral position.
As we get towards the end of A Time to Kill, things go left with one of the witnesses for the defense. Jake expresses that he thinks Carl should take a plea because he doesn’t think they’re gonna win the case. Carl reassures him by referring back to the earlier meeting between them and the NAACP lawyers. Jake feels he might not be the right lawyer for the case but Carl explains that he is the right attorney for the environment. There was a reason for him selecting Jake, a White guy, over the Black attorneys.
Carl realizes that Jake might not be openly prejudiced or a rabid racist like some of the other people in town but he’s from the same society. He and Jake live in completely different parts of town and their lives are very different. Under normal circumstances, they likely wouldn’t have any dealings with each other. Carl sees Jake as being the perfect representative because he thinks Jake understands how other members of his community think. He can speak to them on their level and make them understand.
They have a conversation about White people’s inability to simply sympathize or empathize with Black people. This is because they regard Black people as unlike themselves. Thus a White person judging another White person would be more understanding and sympathetic. Whereas a White person judging a Black person sees them as other and is less inclined to put themselves in that person’s shoes.
At first, Jake denies this but it gets the wheels turning for him. Presenting his closing argument, Jake leans into this idea and switches tactics. He recounts the attack on this little girl and the rape and attempted murder that set all of the other events in motion. It creates a shared feeling where they’re asked to imagine that they were Carl and someone had done this to their child.
It might not be legally right but they could understand someone taking the law into their own hands. Especially if they felt that there wasn’t going to be justice for their loved one. While presenting this argument, Jake has the jurors close their eyes and imagine the situation. But instead of imagining the victim as being a little Black girl, they’re to imagine her as a little White girl. And with that, they’re able to connect with this little girl on a human level within their minds.
The jury ends up finding Carl Lee innocent and for the most part, A Time to Kill ends there. At the end of A Time to Kill Jake and his family journey out to Carl Lee’s side of town where they’re having what appears to be a celebratory cookout and they join in the festivities while their daughters play together. It’s a nice Hollywood ending. But at the same time, I find it incredibly troubling yet also very honest. Do I think the case would have ended like this in real life? Not necessarily.
It does speak to the reality that there is a definite inability on the part of many White people to relate to and view Black people as human beings. We see this with these excessive force situations where law enforcement or even individuals are often the instigators and later claim to have been afraid for their life. People call the cops on Black people for no real reason beyond being petty, even in situations when they’re the aggressor. A Time to Kill presents a very realistic explanation of why even decades later, you still have this disparity between the two racial groups.
The reality is that this is due to how American society is structured, how Black people are represented in media, and the things children learn from the people around them. I do believe that many White people (and arguably other groups as well) are conditioned to not view Black people as being humans. Society encourages negative perceptions of Black people. This contributes to the disparity when it comes to the prosecution and sentencing of White people versus Black people. Crime is crime.
A Time to Kill is adapted from a John Grisham book. It’s a film with a Hollywood ending so things come together at the end and it works out fine. But there’s a lot of commentary throughout A Time to Kill about the different ways in which the justice system is unfair concerning race but also income.
Carl Lee was lucky to get Jake to take on the case and to receive media attention. Most defendants aren’t able to hire private attorneys or receive support from the NAACP. This is part of why when these cases happen in real life that they try to get media attention. They know that with media attention they might be able to get lawyers and other people involved who might otherwise be uninterested.
I try not to select movies for review that are merely entertaining without any social commentary or deeper value. I also try to ensure that the films center on either a Black person or some issue that affects Black people. That’s not to say that there can’t be any White characters or that the filmmaker can’t be White. But I try to avoid films that might feature a Black character but they’re in the background while the film revolves around the White characters.
Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock certainly star in A Time to Kill. But there was some degree of balance with regards to Samuel Jackson portraying Carl Lee but also with regards to the sheriff. I felt this character was a bit more fleshed out and fully formed in comparison to characters in other films.
One that comes to mind would be Ghosts of Mississippi. It’s a different take on a courtroom drama but follows the prosecution of the murderer of Medgar Evers. In that film, you see next to nothing about Medgar Evers as a man it’s like his life which was quite significant is boiled down to one moment, his assassination. He’s an afterthought in the story.
I liked that Carl Lee wasn’t a passive character or a stereotype. This could have easily devolved into a typical “magical negro” or White savior film where the Black lead is just there with no real personhood. Early on in A Time to Kill, he’s the one that puts together the strategic meeting with the NAACP and Jake. He comes up with the strategy for getting some of the money that had been collected on his behalf to Jake and his family.
Overall A Time to Kill is a good movie as it’s entertaining and can be enjoyed at face value. But it also makes some valid points with regards to the justice system and some of how it can be unfair. It’s not only an entertaining movie on the surface but if you were to go a bit deeper there’s more substance. I recommend it as a good watch because there’s quite a bit to discuss. It’s worth checking out and I highly recommend it.
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