Throughout the film A Time to Kill empathy is invoked through the trial of Carl Lee. However, I will zone in on the prison scene which takes place after Jake, Carl Lee’s attorney, realizes that he cannot come up with a closing statement that will acquit Carl Lee for the murder of the two boys who raped his 10-year daughter. In this scene Carl Lee’s character invokes empathy in Jake as well as the audience by depicting the challenges a black man faces in the South. This is an eye opening scene because throughout the film we are led to believe that Jake has been empathizing with Carl Lee, whereas Carl Lee points out that Jake does not fully understand how difficult it is for a black man living in the south in the late 80s and therefore has not begun to empathize with him. And it follows that to be able to empathize one needs to understand the feelings of another. We see this when Carl Lee states that, “You see Jake, you think just like them. That’s why I picked you… when you look at me you don’t see a man, you see a BLACK man” (TK).
Understanding of one’s feelings is arguably one of the most salient characteristics of empathy. In this scene Carl Lee invokes empathy in Jake because he tries to make him understand that it takes more than just representing a black man and talking about race on television to fully comprehend the difficult circumstances that they face in society (TK). Carl Lee effectively invokes empathy in Jake through a comparison of their similarities and differences, for instance they both have daughters of roughly the same age yet they will never get to play together (TK). Carl Lee’s speech is particularly effective because Jake starts off by referring to the jury as “they” and how “they need to relate to the defendant”. Then Carl Lee clearly points out to Jake that he is also one of “them” no matter how much he does not want to identify with them he has the privileges they have and consequently to some degree he shares their mindset. This clarification then helps Jake fully understand what Carl Lee is going through, enabling him to empathize with Carl Lee and ultimately helping him win the case.
Furthermore, this scene invokes apparent empathy in the audience. In this scene Carl Lee discusses the ills of the American society at the time. This aids in making the audience have a full picture of the extent of the challenge Carl Lee was faced with, a (fair) trial for a black man in the south. This is illustrated in the beginning of the scene when Carl Lee suggests that if it was Jake on trial things would have been a lot different and Jake clearly states that it isn’t him on trial and that they are different (TK). This makes the audience consider the extent of the role Carl Lee’s race played in his trial, invoking empathy because race should not be playing any role in justice. Carl Lee states, “How a black man ever going to get a fair trial with the enemy on the bench and the jury box. My life in white hands”. Carl Lee successfully depicts the idea of a divide in society, the idea of “us” and “them”, as well as how one side is favored over the other. This invokes empathy in the audience as well as invoking some form of annoyance or irritation in the audience because of the prejudices at the time. This scene also makes the audience reflect on the idea of justice and right and wrong. One is made to consider whether or not the context of Carl Lee’s actions makes what he did right.
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock. Warner Bros, 1996. Web. 18 Sept. 2016