“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
We watched the 1996 Joel Schumacher film “A Time to Kill”
at the weekend. The cast included Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Oliver Platt and Donald Sutherland. This was a film that was in the specials bin in my local video store and it was the cast that first attracted me to it, as I had not heard anything about it prior to seeing it there. Reading the blurb on the back cover of the packaging convinced me to get it. It was a good decision as it is a very powerful, albeit very harrowing and confronting film.
The plot concerns a Mississippi black man’s struggle for justice for himself and his family in contemporary America. The black man is Carl Lee Hailey (Jackson) and the catastrophic series of events begins as his 10-year-old daughter, Tonya, is brutally raped and bashed almost fatally by two young men with previous similar convictions. Hailey is an acquaintance of upwardly mobile young white lawyer Jake Brigance (McConaughey), who had previously defended successfully his brother in court. Determined to see that the two rapists get what they deserve, but knowing that rapists are often acquitted, Carl Lee takes the law into his own hands and guns them down in cold blood inside the courthouse on the day of their arraignments.
Brigance, struggling to keep his law practice solvent, finds himself defending Carl Lee against murder charges in Canton, Mississippi, a white-dominated town. Ellen Roark (Bullock), a law student from Ole Miss, offers her services gratis to Jake just for the opportunity to help with this case about which she feels strongly about and eventually convinces him to take her on. In the meantime, the Ku Klux Klan becomes involved at the prompting of the brother of one of the rapists, and a chapter of the KKK is reconstituted in Canton to deal with the “nigger-loving” whites. The situation explodes into violence and confrontation between blacks and whites, while the court case provides opportunity for airing intolerance and the racial prejudice question in the USA today.
This film was made from the novel by John Grisham and appears to be a good adaptation (as far as I can tell, seeing I have not read the novel). Comparisons with the novel and film “To Kill a Mockingbird” are inevitable as the similarity of the main thesis of the plot is obvious. Yes, it is not as good as these classics but nevertheless, I feel that Schumacher has made a tight, suspense-filled film that engages the viewer. The issues are confronting and shocking. The rape of the young girl was not explicitly shown, but was all the more terrifying and appalling for it. The concept of the theatrical obscene (ob scaena – “off the stage”) is understood by this director in this respect. The gunning down of the rapists is another matter and the violence there is graphic and extreme.
It is very difficult not to be drawn into the core question of the movie: “Has race equality been achieved in the USA of today?” The events depicted in this movie highlight the prejudices of contemporary American society and also point out the differences between North and South, rich and poor, well-connected and less well-connected people. A particularly good point of the film is that of course not all whites are bad and not all blacks are good. The thesis that each person is an individual and should be judged on his or her merits and actions independently of race, social position, geography, wealth etc, is underpinning of the film.
A sub-plot is ambition and what people will do to achieve their goal. Four different lawyers are compared and contrasted with each other. The savvy, experienced and wildly ambitious DA (Spacey) who is prepared to do anything to achieve success and a high political position; the young idealistic lawyer (McConaughey), who dreams of being successful while still maintaining his ethical standards; a formerly successful and now alcoholic lawyer (Sutherland) who has seen the futility of success and high places; and the mercenary, shallow divorce lawyer (Platt) whose only goal seems to be an easy life, fast cars, beautiful women and a conscience that is forever asleep.
The film is good and well-worth seeing. I should like to think that the USA of 2009 is different to that portrayed in 1996. That the America of Obama has lessened a little the rift between black and white, that there is a little more tolerance and understanding in a society that has long been troubled by racism and intolerance.
Other blogs posting about films on this Movie Monday:Dangerous MeredithMy Soul's Words