Invoking Empathy in the Viewer

In the 1996 film A Time to Kill, there are many instances in which the viewer may find themselves having strong emotional reactions. One time in particular is during the rape of a ten year old black girl, Tonya, by two white men. During this scene, fairly early on in the film, the viewer is taken into Tonya’s perspective and it is as if we are all Tonya during that horrid time. We see the two mens’ faces as if they were looking down on us and we see Tonya’s tied up limbs as if they were our own. This scene invokes a strong sense of empathy in the viewer and in turn may cause the viewer to become personally invested in making sure Tonya receives the justice she deserves.

It was important to put viewers in Tonya’s shoes during the attack to develop a strong antagonist in the film. After viewing Tonya’s attack from her perspective, it would be extremely difficult to wish these two men well and hope that they get away with what they did to poor Tonya; instead, most viewers would wish for justice and hope the men will be punished for their actions. The only drastic difference between viewers would be the punishment each individual finds appropriate for the men. This could range from a slap on the wrist to a death sentence, but some form of punishment is required for a satisfied viewer.

The invocation of empathy in this scene is real and it comes with other emotions such as fear, anxiety, and sadness. When it comes time for the two men face the consequences of their actions in a court of law, Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey takes justice into his own hands and shoots the two men down right there in the courthouse. For some viewers, this was the appropriate punishment and this scene satisfied their craving for justice. For others, this was too extreme of a punishment and Carl Lee became somewhat of an antagonist in the film. As far as the intentions of the film go, I believe Carl Lee is actually meant to be portrayed as the protagonist and hero of the film, which thickens the plot and makes the viewer question their ideas of what is right and what is wrong. The invocation of empathy during Tonya’s attack is purposeful and makes the viewer ask themselves the question “what would I want to happen to those men if they did that to me?”.

Personally, I was deeply satisfied as a viewer when Carl Lee Hailey was found not guilty for his actions. Something the film did not make clear was Tonya’s reaction to this decision. I can only assume that she was happy to have her father, her protector, home and not dead or in jail, but maybe she felt responsible, even guilty, for the two men whose lives were taken. This question is in my head because the film invoked real empathy in me during Tonya’s attack and caused me to stay in her shoes throughout the film and thereafter. Seeing her attack from the perspective of the two men who raped her would have invoked strong emotions as well, but it would have been harder to empathize with Tonya. It was critical for this scene to be from the victim’s perspective.

Works Cited

A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1996. Web(Blackboard). 18 Sept. 2016.

9 thoughts on “Invoking Empathy in the Viewer

  1. I agree that real empathy was invoked in this scene due to the scene being shot from Tonya’s view. I think that you explain it well when you talk about how the camera angle put the viewers into Tonya’s perspective, therefore inspiring empathy. Because the scene is framed in such a way, we as viewers see what Tonya saw and we can feel what she felt, at least emotionally, when this horrible thing was happening to her. This was obviously an active choice made by the director, and I agree that it was very effective in inspiring the viewer to want justice for Tonya, just as we would want justice if it happened to us.

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