One of the most apparent, and yet one of the most insignificant in our discussions thus far, themes in the film A Time to Kill is the racism in the surrounding community. The most famous scenes involve the racism evident in the courtroom, however, the racism outside plays a key role in invoking empathy in the viewers.
The people of the town are divided very cleanly and obviously: the whites, most of whom bonded together with the remaining Ku Klux Klan members; and the blacks, who united to fight for Carl Lee’s freedom and innocence. While the blacks staged a peaceful protest outside the courtroom, the Klan made many attempts at threatening Jake Brigance’s life. They burn a cross outside of his house with his family inside, they attempt to set off a bomb near his house, they threaten a woman he works with and her husband, they actually burn his house down, and they kidnap and leave Ellen Roark for dead. Before the verdict, they were hostile with the Carl Lee supporters and caused a huge riot, resulting in the entire town being shaken up. All of the events collectively and individually brought out empathy in the viewers for both Jake and Carl Lee. Jake himself, rather, grew stronger and more determined the more attacks he faced.
The empathy here is not always very noticeable, since this very important theme of the movie sometimes is left unmentioned. The KKK is modeled to reflect the true pressures of society- to keep the standards and ideas of race as they always have been: unequal. They attack anything and everything they can in order to get to Jake, in the hopes that the threats on things he cares about would persuade him to drop the case. They are constantly working in the shadows or in public light to encourage the racism in the town and sway people to oppose Carl Lee. They parallel all the other pressures on the townspeople. When they set the burning cross outside Jake’s house, his wife pleads for him to quit the case, as she continues to while she is present throughout the movie. After his house is burned down completely, Jake’s friend and partner Harry encourages him to walk away. Jake is constantly facing opposition because of his role as the attorney in the case, but he continues to stand strong and stick by his belief that Carl Lee deserves justice. His personality strongly resembles that of Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. Even when he stands against the entire town, including the jury, he still holds true to his ethical standards and defends Tom Robinson to the best of his ability until the very end. Although the case had a different result than in A Time to Kill, the common theme is holding strong beliefs and doing the right thing, even if society opposes you.
The use of this extreme racism in the movie draws the audience closer to Jake and Carl Lee to invoke empathy in the viewers. We tend to relate more with the underdogs, or the good guys who seem to have no chance of winning. It’s in our nature to empathize with those who fail, those who are opposed, those who succeed in the end. We beg and hope and pray for them to make it out alive, for a miracle that conveniently solves all their problems, for a minor character to make a powerful speech that changes everything. So when all of the odds are stacked against Jake and Carl Lee, when they are beat upon and threatened and attacked so much, the audience empathizes with them and silently wishes for a twist that would set them both free and start a change in their society’s views of race.
A Time To Kill. Directed by Joel Schumacher, performances by Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey, Warner Bros., 1996.
To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. By Horton Foote. Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962.