I waited until I read the book before reviewing the movie. It’s John Grisham’s first novel, finally made into a feature-length film released by Warner Brothers in 1996. It’s A Time to Kill, starring Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey and Matthew McConaughey as small town lawyer Jake Brigance. The book was a long time finding a publisher and was not an immediate hit. It lacks the intense continuity of many of Grisham’s later works, including The Firm (his second book), The Pelican Brief, The Client, and The Racketeer. The movie is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, where I obtained these screen shots. Details are from Wikipedia.
Hailey is a working class black man living in fictional Ford County, Mississippi. One ordinary day in Mississippi two small-time crooks get juiced up and go looking for sport. They spot Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter walking home alone along a rural dirt road, and they scoop her up, using her for a sex toy and an object of scorn for a couple of hours. Their attempt to leave her dead is not successful, and she identifies the two white brutes who did it.
As the two bad guys are arrested and begin their process through the legal system, Hailey pays a visit to his friend, lawyer Jake Brigance. He announces his intentions.
While sheriff’s deputies are leading the pair in cuffs into court, Hailey springs from a hiding place and unleashes on them with an automatic assault rifle. A deputy is also wounded.
Now Jake must defend his friend the killer, who has no money for the expected $50,000 fee. Jake takes the case anyhow, and he gets unexpected assistance from a third-year law student, the idealistic, brilliant, and sexy Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock). She works for free and is of enormous assistance, all the while complicating Jake’s married life.
This is post civil rights Mississippi, and the county has a black sheriff, played by Charles S. Dutton. The sheriff is popular in this predominately white county, but the idea of a black man gunning down two white dudes and expecting not to be lynched ires the KKK. Local recruitment surges, and the Kluxers march.
Black ire is up, as well, and Martin Luther King’s message of non-violence has since faded. A black man hurls a Molotov cocktail, burning a Kluxer to death. Things get uglier.
A phone call from a mysterious source alerts police and the bombing of Jake’s home is thwarted. A white man, husband of Jake’s secretary, is beaten to death, and Jake’s house is torched.
The governor calls out the state militia to maintain order, but a sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) misses Jake and kills a soldier.
The sniper is Freddie Lee Cobb, brother of one of the white rapists, now solid with the KKK. He and his cohorts kidnap Ellen and leave her naked, tied to a tree, torching her car. A mysterious figure emerges from the darkness, unties her, and places a phone call to the police.
Jake has only the defense of diminished capacity, and his expert witness is a drunken psychiatrist who is exposed on cross-examination to have been previously convicted of statutory rape. Jake’s final hope is his summation to the jury, and here is where the book diverges critically. In the book the jury is facing another weekend of deadlock and sequestration, and a woman jury asks jurors to imagine if Hailey’s daughter had been white.
During closing arguments, a deeply shaken Brigance tells the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story. He describes, in slow and painful detail, the rape of a 10-year-old girl, recalling the story of Tonya’s rape. He then asks the jury, in his final comment, to “now imagine she’s white.”
Without a doubt the jury never buys Jake’s contention of diminished capacity. In the end they only see what they consider to be justice is done.
The book never resolves the matter of Klan’s actions nor those of murder of the Kluxer. But we do see the sheriff arresting Freddie Lee Cobb and also one of his own deputies.
What’s wrong with the movie is inherited from the book. The idea that a black man would be able to obtain such uneven justice in the rural South (e.g., Mississippi) is beyond belief, as are a number of other aspects of the story.
History is solid on this. These actions by the KKK would, in real life, bring a flood of FBI and federal prosecutors down to Ford County. No sign of them in the move (or the book). The legal process related to Hailey’s trial swarms with overt violence, yet the participants act in a manner oblivious to the situation. This was barely twenty years since the murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, yet a vulnerable young woman working for the defense attorney feels it’s safe for her to booze it up and then drive down a lonely Mississippi road late at night.
The movie does offer some salvation. The book has only the dynamite bomber getting justice, while the end of the film shows an additional serving up.
Samuel L. Jackson caught my attention playing a deranged killer in Unbreakable with Bruce Willis. I probably need to review that one. He is also famous for asking the burning question, “What’s in your wallet?” He recently caught my attention regarding his off-key politics.
Sandra Bullock is always good to see.
Kiefer Sutherland appears with his father in this one. Donald Sutherland is Lucien Wilbanks, the cashiered, but rich, lawyer friend of Jake’s who helps bankroll the Hailey defense. The younger Sutherland held up the major part of the 24 TV series.
I previously reviewed Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, Jodie Foster’s love interest in Contact. He made a bunch of movies before and since this one, but none other that I have watched. Some appear to fit the bill for one of these reviews.