In July of 1996, Joel Schumacher’s A Time To Kill was released to theaters, an update of a classic scenario: the sleepy southern town of Canton, MI experiences a series of crimes that will expose the thread of racial tension the whole place is hanging on. It was on television all the time when I was growing up and I used to watch it a lot. I wanted to revisit it on its anniversary to see how it held up- or didn’t.
When the movie begins, we find that two young white men in the rural south have kidnapped, beaten and raped a young African American girl. A perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson, playing the little girl’s father Carl Lee Hailey, decides to enact vigilante justice;l after coming to terms with the fact that the boys’ sentence won’t nearly fit the crime. He does so by gunning them down in the lobby of the courthouse, while on their way to the pre-trial hearing, injuring a police officer in the process.
He’s charged with murder. A new trial begins. Racial tensions skyrocket. The klan surges, burns crosses and rallies outside of the court house. A small southern town is on the brink of destroying itself. In other words, it’s a raging hellfire of a movie, that were it released today would surely inspire a thousand think pieces like this one. It’s a fascinating one too, for what it gets wrong, what it gets right, and what it says about where we were in the mid 90’s…and of course, where we are today.
The first thing I noticed about the movie was its incredible cast. Nowadays I think only Wes Anderson or The Coen Brothers could get a crew like this together. Matthew McConaughey, only a few years removed from “Alright Alright Alright,” made his second major dramatic performance here (John Sayles’ Lone Star was released only a month earlier), leading the ensemble as the lawyer Jake Brigance. He takes the stand as Carl Lee’s defense attorney, fighting a losing battle in a role which reimagines Atticus Finch as a hot young hunk of burning southern love. Seriously though, Brigance is molten lava in this. When he’s not donning his perfect work clothes, he’s wearing sleeveless John Mellencamp t-shirts, with sweat pouring down his perfectly sunbaked skin. He’s also taking tequila shots with tabasco sauce and being everyone’s best friend. Kevin Spacey plays his opponent in the courtroom field of battle as prosecuting district attorney Rufus Buckley, doing perhaps an early audition for his Frank Underwood role in House Of Cards. Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock, Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Chris Cooper, and Ashley Judd are just a few of the recognizable names and faces who round out this stacked cast. Beloved character actors like Kurtwood Smith, Charles S. Dutton, Beth Grant, Anthony Heald, and M. Emmet Walsh even make appearances, in a real who’s who of “that guys.”
So, about the actual movie itself. Unfortunately it’s just not what that cast deserves. Keith Phipps from the A.V. Club pointed out in a 2002 review, that it “embodies all that is wrong with Hollywood attempts to address important issues, raising questions of race and justice but refusing to deal with them on anything but the most simplified, manipulative moral terms.” And then some!
For the first 30 minutes of the film it seems possible that we are going to get a movie showing the rotten core of American race relations through a humanistic lens. We see it with the look on Carl Lee Hailey’s face as he brings his daughter out to the ambulance, wading through a crowd of his peers. Hailey’s face embodies rage, numbness, grief, and understandable bloodlust. It’s a hell of an acting job by Jackson. When he takes his justice, we think we’re going to get that movie, one that explores the racial injustices of the criminal justice system, and the moral dilemmas it creates. But unsurprisingly, Hailey takes not only backseat, but probably third row in a passenger van, to Jake Brigance’s character, whose white savior complex completely dominates the rest of the film.
The colorblind attitudes of the Clinton 90’s are on full display here (And to be fair, A Time To Kill is far from the only offender of the era). He’s miffed at Carl Lee for having significantly less money to pay him than he initially thought. Carl Lee says “my kids gotta eat.” Brigance replies with “so do mine.” Members of the NAACP show up but only to turn into the bad guys for a few scenes. When they try to replace Brigance with a team of lawyers more “sensitive to the cause,” suddenly a plot to funnel money away from Carl Lee’s family is exposed and this team of lawyers and reverends (some of whom marched with Dr. King!) stand there dumfounded. No group is incorruptible, but it almost seems like the movie villainizes the NAACP for wanting to place this crime in a historical context. And if the NAACP were to successfully help out, this would no longer be Brigance’s film. Ironically this film ended up winning Best Picture at the NAACP Image Awards that year. That must have been a tough pill to swallow.
In a powerful scene between Brigance and Carl Lee the night before the closing arguments, reality seems to break through for a minute. Carl Lee tells Brigance why he chose him. He says it’s because Brigance thinks like “them,” that he’s “one of the bad guys.” That’s the only way he could win his case. He calls bluff on Brigance’s resistance to seeing race, saying that when he looks at Carl Lee he doesn’t see just a man, but a black man. After the movie’s inevitable courtroom victory in favor of Carl Lee, he tries to thank Brigance, who immediately turns it back on him- “I thought I was one of the bad guys.” Carl Lee stands there feeling guilty. If there was ever any doubt that this was a movie about Brigance’s mission to “save the world-one case at a time”- that’s no longer in question.
Of course there’s no such thing as colorblindness. It assumes an equal playing field when our country is anything but. So when A Time To Kill seems to take such a view, in which characters who even notice racial differences appear to be part of the problem and not the solution, it can’t help being a film about the white hero at the center of it all. That’s the movie’s great sin, and one that leaves a sour taste in your mouth- because it’s simply not the world we live in, and it’s trying so very hard to be.
In fact, It’s about as similar to our world as Westeros in Game Of Thrones. If this were Westeros, the KKK are like the white walkers- the terrifying threat that most characters in the movie swear have been gone for years (despite the 90’s and late 80’s being the heyday of recent Trump supporter and Louisianan David Duke, former grand wizard of the Klan). Then there’s the disparities in treatment by law enforcement, perhaps the most egregious part of the film because it’s literally the opposite of the real world. The white boys that Carl Lee kills are walked into their trial in handcuffs- while when Carl Lee is arrested, he’s not cuffed at all. He walks himself freely into the back of a police car. At one point he is even allowed to sneak out of prison with his friend the Sheriff (Charles S. Dutton), just to apologize to the white police officer/collateral damage he accidentally shot (who happens to be a childhood friend, even though that would have been in the 1950’s in segregated Mississippi. Hmm….) Is he handcuffed during this secret and temporary prison break? Certainly not. While their treatment of him feels justified in a moral movie universe, the utter fantastical nature of it makes the movie feel useless as reflection on our times. Reducing stark racial realities to fractions of what they really are serves no purpose, and is even something of a slap in the face, especially in light of recent news.
The movie is also interminably long. Two and a half hours! It truly feels like a book on film. No part seems to have been left out, as screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, A Winter’s Tale) was perhaps too in love with his script to chop it down a little bit. It’s an hour and a half before the trial even begins. By that point, Brigance has come awfully close to sleeping with Sandra Bullock’s law student assistant Ellen Roark (pronounced endearingly southern as ROW-ARK), multiple crosses have been burned, there’s been a violent battle between the Klan and pro-Carl Lee demonstrators, Brigance’s house burns down, and his secretary’s husband is killed. Oliver Platt shows up as Brigance’s fellow counsel Harry Rex Vonner the morning of the trial to find Brigance dissociated and calling for his dog in the ashes of his burnt down house. Vonner offers us some badly needed comic relief as only a 90’s scoundrel like Oliver Platt can. “Jake listen to me — your marriage is on the rocks, you’re about to have an affair, your career’s in ruins if you’re lucky, and if you’re not, you’re dead.” It’s as if he showed up just to let the audience know that, yes this movie is totally bonkers, the trial hasn’t even started yet, and there’s still an hour left. There’s even a part where Brigance stops a klan member from planting a bomb under his house, punches him out, demands that he diffuse it, then tosses it into the trees with the strength of an NFL quarterback just in time for it to explode far away from human life. You have to see it to believe it.
Despite having thoroughly trashed it, I will say that the movie is still worth watching for many reasons. I wonder if critical race studies classes would ever screen it, as a perfect example of the deals that Hollywood seems to make just to get a movie about American racism made, and the false assumptions it makes about what audiences are looking for. Every acting performance is still on point, with every actor playing to perfection the kind of role they would go on to hone a few dozen more times in their careers. Kiefer Sutherland was cast as the devilish villain with sharp looks as often as Tom Cruise was as the effortlessly charming protaganist with boyish good looks. During Brigance’s closing argument, in which he tells the story of Hailey’s daughter being raped in graphic detail, I started tearing up. McConaughey has always been a treasure of an actor, displaying sensitive tough guy masculinity as well as Paul Newman in his heyday. It’s fascinating to see the turn he took after this, wasting a good fifteen years goofing it up in bad romantic comedies before suddenly saying to himself “actually, I’m secretly the best young actor alive right now, so I will go ahead and be that instead.”
After Brigance’s impassioned plea for justice, a young boy runs out the courthouse doors to yell at a completely silent, expecting crowd that “he’s innocent!” The celebration is akin to him saying “racism is over!” The movie honestly seems to try and accomplish nothing less. I don’t know what laws allow a man who guns down other men in cold blood in front of dozens of witnesses to get away without even a year in prison, but in this film world, they exist.
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway I had from watching the film is how much things have changed in our perception of race since 1996. Audiences today are so much more “woke” than they were back then. Even Roger Ebert, a champion supporter of films about and by the underprivileged, gave it a mostly positive review, without even mentioning its bizarre racial politics. In the era of social media, it would cause a firestorm. It’s a strange artifact that, were it to come out today, Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter folks alike would find something they could agree on- hating on this movie.