Blog Entry #3: Empathy, Apparent or Real

The film A Time to Kill is fraught with emotional rollercoasters and moral tension. On multiple occasions, audience members are placed in serious moral dilemmas regarding Carl Lee Hailey’s court case. On the one hand, it is obvious that this man killed two people. But on the other hand, the men he killed had raped his ten year old daughter and he knew they might have gotten off scot-free even with a trial. As the audience follows Carl Lee’s court case, the film brings out empathy in its characters as well as the audience that makes everyone reconsider their decision to what initially feels like a clear cut situation.

One instance where empathy is invoked in another character is when Carl Lee talks to his lawyer, Jake Brigance, in his jail cell when Jake is about lose Carl Lee’s court case. Even though Jake is about to give up his defense of Carl Lee, Carl Lee explains to Jake that he cannot settle for a lifetime prison sentence, because like Jake, Carl Lee also has a family to support. In this case, real empathy is invoked in another character as Jake can understand and feel the pressure of having to support dependants. The empathy that is invoked helps establish a further connection between Carl Lee and Jake, that makes Jake more compelled to help Carl Lee because he can see some of himself in the man he is defending.

This same approach extends to the jury as well. In this case, Carl Lee invokes apparent empathy, which I liken to Hoffman’s cognitive empathy in his essay, “Empathy, Justice, and the Law” (230). Carl Lee tells Jake point blank “You see me as different,” despite Jake’s open-mindedness, simply because of how Jake was raised (A Time To Kill). But instead of using that to distance the two, Carl Lee calls upon Jake to forget about law and use the similarities between himself and the jury to find the argument it would take to get Jake as a juror, and thus the current jury, to acquit Carl Lee of capital murder. This is apparent empathy in a sense because Jake can try to place himself in the shoes of a juror, but would never fully take on their mindset because he has bias as Carl Lee’s defense attorney. Carl Lee also makes use of real empathy and this can be seen in Carl Lee’s conversation with Jake during his explanation of racism’s continuance in the South, which invokes an “empathy for distressed groups” and “empathic feeling of injustice” in Jake (Hoffman 235, 238). What I would call affective empathy by Hoffman’s terms is the real empathy Carl Lee utilizes to get Jake to imagine the subtle and outright discrimination African-Americans experience in the South, causing Jake to feel the injustice that Carl Lee does, and perhaps enough to act upon it (Hoffman 230). This empathy is very much real because it compels Jake Brigance to work and save Carl Lee from conviction the same way many other people in real life have changed lives because of the affective empathy they have felt for others (Hoffman 238). Carl Lee’s calls for real empathy eventually cajoles Jake into redoubling his efforts of defending Carl Lee to prove him wrong and show Carl Lee that a black man can win against a white prosecution.

Carl Lee is capable of drawing out both cognitive and affective empathy in Jake Brigance. While society typically defines empathy is being able to feel what the other person is feeling, Carl Lee goes beyond that and invokes, what Hoffman labelled as empathy over feelings of injustice and empathy for distressed groups, to show Jake how important his freedom is to him as well as the larger African-American community in the South.

Works Cited:

A Time To Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Blackboard. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Web. Accessed Sept 20, 2016.

4 thoughts on “Blog Entry #3: Empathy, Apparent or Real

  1. Jessica, your blog was very well-written, and full of detail. While I wrote about a different aspect of A Time to Kill, I completely agree with your interpretation of those scenes. I believe an invocation of both types of empathy (affective and cognitive) are present, and play an important role in Jake’s deliverance of his closing argument. Which, evidently won him the case.

    Dialogue was obviously very important in that scene, which of course backs up your explanation. Jake originally comes to Carl Lee as a defeated man, but apparently leaves that room feeling inspired by Carl’s perspective on both of their realities because he digs deep to the root of the problem, and why the jury wasn’t able to empathize with him in the first place. Once Jake is truly made aware of this, he is able to empathize with Carl Lee, and in turn is able to use this invocation to his advantage and invoke empathy in the jury as well.

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