A Time to Kill

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Joel Schumacher

With Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Kiefer Sutherland, and Ashley Judd.

According to Ephraim Katz in The Film Encyclopedia, Joel Schumacher was “a display artist for the fashionable Henri Bendel department store. He later operated his own boutique, then joined Revlon as a designer of clothing and packaging.” He continues that work to this day, presently under the misnomer “film director.” His pitiful credits as such include St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Dying Young, and Batman Forever. Best-selling author John Grisham has used Schumacher to dress up the two most recent adaptations of his work—The Client and the current A Time to Kill, which has won praise in the New York Times, Time, and Rolling Stone. In the case of A Time to Kill, a story of racial tension set in the south, the result is designer rage: a movie as fashionably moral and chic in its righteous indignation as the causes the denizens of Hollywood wear like perfumes.

Grisham has sold more novels than there are readers in this country. I read The Firm in the hopes of divining the reasons for such an accomplishment and came up empty-handed. Though the book quickly fell apart, the opening chapters were admittedly gripping. Perhaps that’s Grisham’s accomplishment right there: he hooks you from the start and thereafter you’re a wriggling fish waiting to be reeled in.

In Joel Schumacher, Grisham has a willing accomplice. A Time to Kill opens with two stereotypical slobbering rednecks driving a beat-up pickup into a poor African-American neighborhood. Almost immediately we hear the most powerful word in the English language (no, not love—nigger), and the grimy, smelly (you can tell by looking at them), beer-gutted rednecks are spitting in the faces of dignified black folk. Then comes the narrative’s masterstroke: the two rednecks rape a young African-American girl carrying home a bag of groceries, leaving her for dead. In retaliation the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), shoots the culprits as they climb the stairs of the courthouse for their trial. Local attorney Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), who’s white, defends the father, claiming that the homicides are justifiable, that there is “a time to kill.” Pretty soon we’re in a warped moral universe where all sorts of inconsistencies are justified in the name of compassion for a little girl’s suffering and a black man’s imprisonment.

As Carl Lee, Jackson summons up the requisite outrage and dignity. Sandra Bullock’s role as the “liberal” rich law student who offers to help Jake for free serves to show how good and strong Jake is for resisting such an attractive temptress and remaining faithful to his wife, Ashley Judd, suitably tan. With his blue eyes and quick smile, Matthew McConaughey, who plays Jake, has been acclaimed as the next big thing, the new Paul Newman. There is a physical resemblance, but this is an obvious example of what shall be heretofore known as the Slater Fallacy. Years ago critics were calling Christian Slater a future star because Jack Nicholson is a great star and Slater reminded them of him. Now he reminds everyone of Christian Slater.

A Time to Kill is ostensibly liberal because an African-American is fighting for his life against a racist judicial system in the ass-backward south (we can tell we’re in the south because the characters sweat so much it looks like they’re drowning). As a representative from the NAACP says, “Carl Lee’s freeing for the killing of two white men would do more for black people in this land than anything since civil-rights integration.” But A Time to Kill is actually conservative because the film argues that vigilantism is needed in a scary, dangerous world where the Ku Klux Klan is beating up white men, burning down the homes of white lawyers, and kidnapping white women—as in the scene in which Bullock is taken to a field and tied to a tree by recently behooded Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the brother of one of the rednecks. But since when does the KKK spend so much time terrorizing people of the pale persuasion? The filmmakers seem afraid white people might be sympathetic toward their villains unless Caucasians are given equal time as victims.

Like many artists today, Grisham and Schumacher exploit racial tension without understanding it. They think they’re enlightened because they’re on the side of African-Americans and against the KKK. But showing rows of “good, churchgoing black folk” in pews praising the Lord as gospel music swells on the sound track isn’t uplifting. The image is so cliched, so lacking in irony and depth, that it ends up enforcing a racist stereotype and—like so much of the film—judges people on their skin color rather than their humanity.

A Time to Kill begins and ends with spitting. In the opening scene one of the rednecks spits in the face of an African-American man sitting quietly on the steps of a grocery store. At the end an African-American woman spits in the face of a man chanting “Fry Carl Lee” outside the courthouse as a triumphant peal of trumpets glorifies her expectoration. The filmmakers don’t seem to realize they’ve come full circle. A Time to Kill argues for vigilantism but disguises its message by making the vigilante black, allowing viewers to think their blood lust and thirst for revenge is actually empathy for the oppressed. Grisham and Schumacher use Carl Lee because of the color of his skin. They exploit him just because he’s black, and in doing so they embrace what they started out condemning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Matthew McConaughey examining Samuel L. Jackson from A Time to Kill.