Empathy, Real or Apparent

In a courtroom trial, the defendant is supposed to be accompanied by a fair jury of his peers. However, in the movie “A Time to Kill,” Carl Lee Hailey (a black man) is at odds with a jury of twelve southern white folks in the year 1984. With him, is a young lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance. In the concluding scenes of the movie, Jake has one final chance to sway the jury in favor of Carl Lee with his closing statement, but he begins to realize even the most well-prepared and well-stated argument won’t be enough. His final approach becomes an appeal to pathos (emotion), as he politely asks the jury to close their eyes. What comes next is a disconcerting experience for everyone (including himself), as he verbally reconstructs the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter. As the story progresses through each dark and twisted sequence, Jake vividly invokes utter sympathy in the hearts of the jury, but something remarkable occurs at the tail end of it. Sympathy becomes replaced with empathy, and the jurors can finally peer into the soul of Carl Lee to see indefinitely why he is justified in his actions. For the first time, the trial was no longer about color; it was about a man seeking justice for his brutally raped daughter. This anomaly occurred because Jake Brigance changed the dynamic of the story from black, to white when he says, “Now imagine she’s white” (TK). The look on the juror’s faces said it all. They hadn’t even thought about how they would feel if she were white. They hadn’t even thought about what the average person could be capable of until that moment when they placed themselves in Carl Lee’s shoes. And within that brief instance, the jury truly empathized with Carl Lee Hailey, or they would not have found him— “Innocent” (TK).

I believe Jake’s appeal to pathos works in favor of him and Carl Lee because it targets the innately human aspect of the court. The jurors originally found themselves looking at Carl Lee’s circumstances as being figuratively black-and-white, but consequently after Jake elicited sympathetic and empathetic emotions during his closing argument, that black-and-white circumstance started to look a whole lot grayer. I also believe that by strategically changing the race of the victimized girl from presumably black, to white, it helped to illuminate the fact that race was playing a bigger role in their judgement than they might have realized. By putting race under a microscope, it immediately began impacting the jury immensely by revealing their former biases through introspection (even if some were already aware they had such a bias) and allowed for appropriate correction in their judgement. Some people might say Jake Brigance manipulated the jury, but he didn’t. He simply showed them the light, and they just finally decided to walk toward it.


Work Cited

A Time to Kill. Directed by Joel Schumacher, performances by Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. 1996. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros, 1996. DVD.

3 thoughts on “Empathy, Real or Apparent

  1. I agree with you that Jake is smart when he decided to play the emotional card instead of logical. Throughout the trial, logic was utilized by both sides, each evidence with equal amount reasoning force, so it depends on the Jurors to decide which side they are in favor of more -according to their racial bias. Within expectation, all jurors have chose to vote Carl Lee guilty prior to Jake’s closing statement. At this point, you are right that Jake would not earn a better result if he stayed with logical reasoning.
    On the other hand, I do believe that Jake’s closing statement belong in the manipulation category. Any attempt to invoke other’s empathy in order to gear them towards a desirable direction, is a form of emotional manipulation. He forces the Jurors to think in Carl Lee’s shoes by having all the jurors close their eyes, and then all sensual message they would receive is his soft, assertive voice. The manipulation is effective in term that it did geared the jurors to eventually see beyond race and feel for Carl Lee.
    During the scene, the cam majorly focuses on Jake, with him centered and alone, while the cam is pointing up. Which allows the audience to see from the position of the jurors. There are moments which Jake himself experiences difficulties to tell the story, this detail allows the audiences to empathize with Jake’s struggle to even think about what happen. By focusing on Jake with a slight suggestion of essential details from the environment, the audience becomes part of the courtroom.

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