Movie Review: “A time to Kill” Requires Time to Believe – August 1996

A New Visions Commentary paper published August 1996 by The National Center for Public Policy Research, 20 F Street NW, Suite 700 , Washington, D.C. 20001, (202) 507-6398, Fax (301) 498-1301, E-Mail [email protected]

“A Time To Kill” is both the most believable and most unrealistic movie I have seen this summer. The movie is about a white attorney, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) in a small Mississippi county who ventures to defend a black sawmill worker, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) who has been charged with murder. The charges stem from Carl Lee’s shooting of two white boys who raped his ten-year-old daughter, Tanya.

The movie is believable because, somewhere in Mississippi, there probably is a county like Canton where whites treat blacks with benign neglect on the surface, but where there is real hatred and scorn underneath. Somewhere in that county, there must be a recently elected black sheriff. There must also be a black man who has enough love for his daughter and family, enough self-respect, and enough courage to take matters into his own hands and mete out justice when he knows that, under normal circumstances, justice will not prevail. Also in that county, there probably is a young white attorney who would take on a murder case involving a black defendant either out of a commitment to justice or to take advantage of the publicity. But, most important, it is realistic (in the best of all possible worlds) to believe that the black man in question is street smart savvy enough to manipulate the situation in such a way that he ends up out of jail and back with his family, not dead in the gas chamber, when the dust clears.

The movie is unrealistic because it is difficult to believe that the Ku Klux Klan could operate with such blatant disregard for the law. It is unimaginable that a young law student of the caliber portrayed by Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock) would just happen to volunteer to assist attorney Jake Brigance with Carl Lee’s trial. Moreover, considering the images of black males that appear in many movies and television programs, it is difficult to believe that a black man portrayed on screen would project so much courage and acumen, and be able to execute justice without becoming a victim of it.

This contrast of the realistic and unrealistic presents an interesting perspective for the viewer. If you prefer a fantasy world, you will be swept away and see the movie as one of the most charged dramas of the year. However, if you are objective, you will conclude that the movie is intense, illuminating, and even touching, but somewhat unbelievable.

The movie is also inconsistent, because its portrayal of people and events does not match the era they supposedly live in. The story occurs in a contemporary setting; however, the action of the Ku Klux Klan is definitely pre-1970’s, while the courage and acumen of Carl Lee is certainly post-1970’s. It is difficult to reconcile these vastly different realities, and place them together in the 1990’s.

For me, “A Time To Kill” fails on one important count. Even though Carl Lee is the hero in the sub-plot (if you listen closely to the dialogue, he is the movie’s only hero), in the main plot, the movie explicitly features a white hero coming to the rescue of the poor black man. Enough of such movies have been made. I still await the mainstream movie that features blacks as heroes in control of their destiny, not beings at the mercy of another race.

by B.B. Robinson, a member of the national Advisory Council of the African-American leadership group Project 21, and President of Eye on the Media, Inc. (McLean, VA). Project 21 New Visions Commentaries are the opinion of their author and not necessarily that of Project 21.


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