Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 4(3) (1996) 80-83
A Time to Kill
Story by Hunt Lowry and John Grisham from a novel by John Grisham
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman
Director: Joel Schumacher
Principal Actors: Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey
Release Information: Warner Bros. (1996) 145 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
A teacher of criminal justice, particularly media and criminal justice, must pay attention when a courtroom drama hovers around the top ten box office draws for weeks in a summer filled with action hits. Films not yet on video seldom make it directly into the classroom, but they must be accounted for indirectly if most students have recently seen them. Once more in the summer of 1996, a hit movie purports to explore the fertile dramatic soil in the experiential gap between law and justice, an area as rich in conflict among high principles as in conflict among people.
This maddening conflict is as old as law, and the age of the conflict illustrates some fundamental imperfection in every legal system designed so far by humankind. In A Dry White Season, Marlon Brando as white civil rights lawyer Ian MacKenzie described apartheid era South Africa in his trademark mumble: "(j)ustice and law . . . are often just . . . well, I suppose they could be described as distant cousins--- and here in South Africa, they are simply not on speaking terms at all." In times when law and justice fail to connect, powerful emotions are unleashed that may illuminate unless they just burn. As Aeschylus wrote in The Oresteia, a classic conflict between law and justice:
There is a place where terror is good;
it should sit and watch over the mind.
A Time to Kill fails to find that place. It does deliver the emotion, but whether that emotion arises from a genuine conflict between law and justice is open to serious question. The emotion is packed into a harrowing opening sequence replete with every rural Southern stereotype known to American cinema. The rape and attempted murder of a ten year old girl by two (at least physically) grown men is as disgusting as crimes short of homicide get.
The white characters, particularly those who labor in the criminal justice system beside the elected black sheriff of Canton, Mississippi, are clearly unsympathetic to the perpetrators of this white-on-black atrocity. The rapists are described generically as "animals" and specifically as "hyenas" by their white peers of the New South. The audience, having witnessed the crime, is not burdened with any [End page 80] presumption of innocence, the first of many systemic burdens Akiva Goldsman's screenplay chooses not to carry.
Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson, in an utterly convincing performance), the working class father of the victim, becomes convinced that the perpetrators "might get off" and that if convicted of this brutal rape they could be paroled in ten years. Other charges--kidnapping, mayhem, attempted murder, violation of federal civil rights statutes--get no attention, and the entire weight of the law/justice conflict is carried by Carl Lee Hailey's speculations.
In response to this utterly contrived and unconvincing conflict, Carl Lee Hailey devises an execution by assault rifle. Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), a lawyer as green and phototropic as a new plant and not nearly as intelligent, is about as material as witnesses come--he uses his necktie to stop the bleeding of a deputy caught by a ricochet. Naturally, on Planet Hollywood, this material witness becomes counsel for Carl Lee Hailey.
Enter Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), hotshot law student and anti-death penalty crusader from Ole Miss. "Ro-ark," as the locals call her, brings enthusiasm and a sexual tension with Brigance accentuated by his marital difficulties over the case. Roark's initial contribution to the defense is to provide Brigance with precedents to help the judge avoid reversible error in failing to properly consider a motion for change of venue.
Take this from one who has participated in a capital murder defense: the best possible outcome is acquittal, second best is conviction without death, and third best is to have tried a case that contains reversible error. In a capital murder case, reversible error is a gift from God that can add five or ten years to a client's life expectancy. No defense lawyer--particularly one who saw his client pull the trigger--would help a judge avoid reversible error.
After helping Brigance grease the skids to death row for his client, Roark tosses a Westlaw printout into his lap, calling to his attention precedents wherein acquittals were entered in revenge killings. How, pray tell, would appellate courts be writing on acquittals, unless in Mississippi the state can appeal a not guilty verdict? And if an appellate court did write on such a thing, how would those opinions help Brigance craft a jury argument? Carl Lee Hailey's defense, temporary insanity, is about facts, not law.
Other nonsense in A Time to Kill includes submitting a motion for change of venue without evidence, blurting out facts not in evidence (without [End page 81] objection!) during summation, allowing a witness to state an opinion on sentencing during the guilt phase of a trial and numerous other evidentiary rulings that would drive an appellate court to purple prose. I wanted to put on my Mr. Rogers sweater and ask the prosecutor (Kevin Spacey, trailing slime) "Can you say 'mistrial'?"
Most courtroom dramas contain trivial errors of law or procedure or tactics, because the key word is "drama." As Court TV proves every day, even carefully selected trials contain all the drama of a GI haircut one hair at a time. Shrinking the trial narrative to something that will pull an audience through a novel, play or motion picture necessarily leaves most of what happened on the cutting room floor. Criminal justice professionals must suspend disbelief for the sake of the story, but A Time to Kill, in spite of performances ranging from adequate (Bullock) to inspired (Jackson), asks too much. Even assuming the prosecutor obligingly crossed defense counsel off his subpoena list, the very crux of the drama takes place in a courtroom found only on Planet Hollywood.
Brigance's summation is hard to criticize. Everyone wants a dim bulb to have a chance to shine. Unfortunately, Brigance's central argument--delivered with appropriate tears and trembling lips by McConaughy--leaves him open to several obvious and devastating rebuttals. Brigance is only saved by the rules of procedure on Planet Hollywood, where the prosecution is not allowed closing argument.
Outside the courtroom, the plot is advanced by another deus ex machina named Mickey Mouse, a Ku Klux Klan turnsheet who tips off and rescues whenever jeopardy is breathing hard on Carl Lee Hailey's defenders. Mr. Mouse's last heroics rescue Roark from the tree where the Klan boys, having told her they were going to leave her hanging naked, have inexplicably left her hanging in the underwear she told Brigance in a previous scene she was not wearing. Whether Sandra Bullock cares to do nude scenes is of little consequence, but whether the dialog matches what is on the screen is hard to ignore.
Finally, the screenplay makes no effort whatsoever to resolve the lame conflict between law and justice it has so laboriously contrived. It simply picks a side and manipulates the audience's emotions to secure agreement. Contained in that manipulation is the film's central lie. In an emotionally charged scene, delivered perfectly by Samuel L. Jackson, Hailey as jailhouse Jung unburdens himself on the unbridgeable distance between black and white and the resultant lack of distinction between fair-minded whites and overt racists.
That distance is real enough to carry Jackson's emotion but not real enough to avoid simply [End page 82] disappearing to make the film's ending--cut whole cloth from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech--credible. The fact that both the unbridgeable distance and the black child and white child playing together images work is a tribute to Samuel L. Jackson's performance rather than any revealed truth.
If A Time to Kill brings black and white together after denying the possibility, it will leave few eyes dry and even fewer prejudices and preconceptions challenged. The relationship between law and justice remains as obscure as the relationship between entertainment and art, and criminal justice on the ground is so thoroughly misrepresented as to add ignorance on top of mystery.
Drama students can learn audience manipulation, law students can learn how not to try a capital murder case, but criminal justice undergraduates approaching this film without substantial guidance will come away with stereotypes about people, misconceptions about criminal procedure, and a skewed perception of the ancient conflict between law and justice--a perception with no clue to how Cousin Law and Cousin Justice could get to know each other better on any planet other than Hollywood.
Reviewed by Steve Russell
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice
The University of Texas at San Antonio [End page 83]