Just before the dramatic finale, Jake visits Carl Lee in his barren cell, to admit their inevitable defeat. The lighting is low in this scene, with minimal decoration and furnishings in the cell. The camera pans only between the faces of the two men, emphasizing the stark contrast in their appearances. Jake is dressed in a pressed suit, looking every bit the attorney, and Carl Lee is sweaty, in a dirty shirt and pants. This setting is paramount to the upcoming conversation, because this is essentially the profession of the movie’s theme.
“They see you, they see a yard worker. They see me, they see an attorney.” -Jake Brigance (A Time to Kill)
The dramatic language used throughout their conversation is meant to invoke empathy in the viewer not only for Carl Lee Hailey, but also for the plight of African Americans. Carl finally gets through to Jake that they are not friends, and that no matter his pretty professions of equality, he is one of the “bad guys”.
“Fact is, you just like all the rest of them.” -Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill)
The harsh accusation towards the man who has become the hero of the movie is understandably shocking, which is the point exactly. Throughout the movie the audience cheers Jake on for his determination to defend the man who avenged his daughter’s rape and attempted murder. On the surface Jake is nothing like the two men who raped Carl’s daughter, but Hailey argues that they hold the same fundamental beliefs, as all white people are raised to see black people as less than themselves.
“When you look at me, you don’t see a man…you see a black man.” -Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill)
Carl makes an important point for the viewers here that still holds much relevance today. Because Jake refuses to see the racism in his inherent beliefs, he cannot win the court case. It isn’t until he acknowledges that he is in fact one of the white people who can never fully understand the struggle of being oppressed by an entire nation that he finds the words to win the case. By examining his own white privilege, he finds the words he knows will cause the jury to release Carl Lee. This epiphany is supposed to translate to the viewers of the movie, and encourage them to examine their own actions and the world they live in critically. It invokes the principle of the judicious spectator, but instead of the court room, to examine the structure of society, and the institutionalized racism found within much of the country.
“America is a wall, and you on the other side.” -Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill)
Without commenting on the application this scene and quote have for current politics, this last line calls into question everything Jake (and the viewers) know about the United States. The “American Dream” and the promise of Ellis Island were renowned around the world, but this blind optimism serves to cover the underlying problems within the integrity of the nation. Idealistic views about the “land of the free and the home of the brave” minimize the importance of critically analyzing the motions of the government. The poignant line is intended to invoke a sense of righteous indignation for the state of our wonderful country, and further rally the viewer behind Jake’s cause to set Carl Lee free–as if getting him acquitted proves that good still exists in America.
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.