The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: A Time to Kill

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For this week’s installment of The Greatest Lawyer Movies of all time, I watched…

A Time to Kill
1996 dir. Joel Schumacher

A ten-year-old girl is raped and nearly killed in rural Mississippi. She is black. The rapists are vile, white, Confederate flag-waving hicks, the kind only found in neglected rural backwaters and Hollywood genre films. They’re quickly apprehended, but will a jury of their white peers let them walk? The victim’s father is not willing to run that risk and decides to take the law into his own hands.

That’s the setup for “A Time to Kill,” a pulpy fever dream of a legal thriller based on John Grisham’s first novel. It’s entertaining, silly, disturbing, and deeply problematic. But let’s start with the good stuff:

First of all, the cast is absolutely stacked. Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson take top billing, and they’re joined by Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Chris Cooper, and a host of other great character actors. They all turn in solid performances, and its fun to play “name that actor” for the first half hour.

There’s also a reason John Grisham novels, and the many lawyer movies they’ve spawned, are so popular: they’re damn entertaining. “A Time to Kill” starts with a sensational premise – a revenge killing on the courthouse steps – and it only gets crazier from there. There are dramatic cross-examinations, behind-the-scenes legal tricks, David v. Goliath odds, Big Ideas About Race, ghoulish Klansmen and burning crosses, tear-jerking summations, 12 angry men and women butting heads on the jury, murders, brawls, double crosses, and even a steamy (if totally misplaced) love affair. What can I say? The formula works.

And yet… there are aspects of “A Time to Kill” that are clumsy, bizarre, and ugly. I don’t mean to take the movie too seriously – it’s just trying to entertain, after all. But at the same time, it’s about racism, revenge, and a brutal rape, which are all, well… pretty serious. If you’re going to make a movie about such things, it should really be about them; they shouldn’t just be plot devices and thematic add-ons to manipulate our emotions.

So what does “A Time to Kill” does have to say about revenge? More or less that it’s the right, manly thing to do. The movie’s title is taken from Ecclesiastes 3, and its morality is decidedly Old Testament. Carl Lee (Jackson) says he doesn’t trust the court system, but he doesn’t even give it a chance. Why not wait to see if the rapists are convicted before taking the law into his own hands? Most people in the town don’t seem to mind, though. His actions are viewed as heroic by just about everyone who’s not a wannabe member of the KKK. In fact, the film seems to think that the only reason you’d question what he did is the fact that he and his daughter are black. Even the cop whose leg Carl Lee accidentally blows off sees nothing wrong with the premeditated killing of two men in police custody about to be tried in a court of law.

The film wants us to think that the gap between law and justice is simply too great to abide; that sometimes a man has to operate outside the law to do what is right. That’s all good and well, but it’s a weird theme for a courtroom drama. After the killing, Carl Lee seeks justice from a system he’s deemed incapable of rendering it. And his legal argument contradicts the film’s basic premise. His case rests on proving he was insane at the time of the murder, but we’re reminded again and again that he acted rationally, “as any father would.”

Furthermore, the prosecutor on the case (Spacey) is asking for the death penalty, so Carl Lee might be condemned to death for condemning to death two others. Here, the film starts to choke on its own savage moral logic. It argues against one revenge killing and in favor of another. And as the trial goes on, the murder sets in motion an escalating cycle of violence. The brother of one of the men Carl Lee shot starts up a local chapter of the Klan, and casualties begin adding up on both sides. The film seems unaware of the irony. In fact, no one in the movie seems to have gotten to the parts of the New Testament about forgiveness and violence begetting violence. Carl Lee’s own lawyer, his defense attorney, is adamantly pro-death penalty. His only problem with it, he says, is that it’s not used often enough.

There are movies, like “In the Bedroom,” about real moral grey areas, cases in which murder becomes comprehensible, if not necessarily excusable. This ain’t one.

The other big problem with “A Time to Kill” is its clunky racial politics. For a movie that purports (LSAT word!) to be about standing up to white supremacy, the black characters get precious little screen time, and as Carl Lee’s lawyer, Matthew McConaughey plays a hunky white savior. It is he who is called upon to shine light on racial prejudice, and he who finds burning crosses on his lawn. At one point, he even saves a black man’s life in a street brawl with the Klan, despite the fact that the man is both the sheriff and a former football player.

Meanwhile, two of the other approximately three black characters with speaking roles – a representative of the NAACP and the leader of a local church – are bizarrely demonized as scheming and self-serving. In a scene that truly boggled my mind, Carl Lee tricks the NAACP into paying Matthew McConaughey – an inexperienced lawyer who has never tried a capital case – rather than providing a team of its own legal experts at a bargain rate. Why? Well, everyone knows those NAACP lawyers purposely lose cases in order to make martyrs out of their clients… wait, what?

Finally, for a movie involving quite a lot of the KKK, “A Time to Kill” does a poor job of showing how bad racism in America really is. It divides its white people neatly into saints and skinheads, erasing uncomfortable grey areas. Most of the white characters in the movie are presented as completely free of prejudice. They call the rapists “animals” and “hyenas” and are glad when Carl Lee disposes of them. Despite some mention of the town being segregated, they view him and his family as kin. The implication is clear: not all Southerners are racists; it’s just the ones with mullets that you have to look out for.

But this undercuts a key premise of the plot, that in Mississippi whites can rape a ten-year-old black girl and the court system will give them a pass. Far worse, it naively wishes away racism’s more insidious manifestations: unconscious prejudice, systemic inequality, police brutality, etc. When Carl Lee is arrested (after having killed two men and shot the leg off a cop, mind you), the sheriff doesn’t even handcuff him.

So what is “A Time to Kill,” ultimately, about? Not racism, not revenge, and definitely not the court system. Really, it’s all white people and our guilty collective conscience. It is a fantasy of purification: white supremacy, embodied by a pair of grotesque scapegoats, gunned down in a blaze of glory by none other than Samuel L. Jackson. The film’s white characters, and its white viewers, are thankful. He’s settled the score. Now they can sleep easy, knowing they’re good.

Anyway… I may have gotten a little off-track here. Is “A Time to Kill” the greatest lawyer movie of all time? Nah. But it is pretty entertaining. Just don’t think too hard about it, or you might find yourself writing 1,000 word diatribes the middle of the night, and who would want to read one of those?

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