The themes of empathy and justice are a central component of Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill. In this note I take empathy to be the “awareness of another’s feelings” or “feeling what another feels” (Hoffman 230) and understand justice to be the notion of fair treatment, that everyone should get what they deserve. I will explore the relationship between these two in the film. A Time to Kill tells the story of the prosecution of a black man, Carl Lee, who killed the two men who raped his 10-year-old daughter. His motive was the belief that the black community could not get a fair trial in the South at the time. Carl Lee states, “how a black man ever going to get a fair trial, with the enemy on the bench in the jury box. My life in white hands?” (TK). In his trial, Carl Lee justifiably feels as though he is both the victim and the accused. The fight for justice in this film goes beyond what is found in the law. In my view, this film powerfully portrays how law and justice are not necessarily co-extensive. The law is a set of rules made by society, and when the film was set societal norms were not ‘just’, Tonya and Carl Lee did not live in a “fair” society. It is for this reason that I would argue that empathy did promote justice because justice could not be found in the law in A Time to Kill.
This blog post is going to look at whether or not the ultimate verdict arrived at by the jury, acquitting Carl Lee, was an act of justice, consequently: since this decision was arrived at primarily by empathizing with the accused, reflecting on the role empathy played in either promoting or obstructing justice. To achieve this, I am going to look at tools used to invoke and portray empathy, as well as their effects, throughout the trial, then move onto looking at whether or not Carl Lee’s acquittal was an act of justice.
Firstly, let us consider the effect of empathy invoked in characters (mainly the jury) as well as the audience to create a platform for the discussion of whether or not empathy promoted or obstructed justice. To begin with, let us consider Carl Lee’s direct examination. In this scene, the camera is placed at a constant distance that centers Carl Lee’s face on the screen at all times as he explains how he felt. Having the frame only on Carl Lee’s face detaches him from the rest of the cast, which reflects his feeling of loneliness, isolation, and helplessness, which happen to be the same feelings his daughter experienced. This aids in invoking empathy because helplessness and loneliness are emotions everyone can relate to. In addition to this, the camera circles Carl Lee, a technique which is referred to as an “Arc shot” (Arc shot, mediacollege.com). Circling Carl Lee with extremely close range creates this impression that the viewer is getting insight on what is happening in Carl Lee’s mind as he speaks, which makes the viewer feel as though they have a deeper understanding of his innermost thoughts and feelings as he relays them to the courthouse. This invokes empathy because it enables the reader to appreciate what he was feeling, creating the sense of awareness and ultimately making it easier to feel what he felt. Furthermore, Carl Lee uses emotive language as well as an anecdote to invoke empathy in the jury. Carl Lee speaks about how he as Tonya’s father could not protect or help her at that moment, which is considered to be the role of a father. He talks about how all he could hear was his daughter say, “I called for you daddy. When them men was hurting me. I called for you, over and over. But you didn’t never come” (TK). This scene invokes empathy for both Tonya and Carl Lee. It should be noted that the only question used by the defense was, “How did you feel”, indicating that their whole case was based on getting the jurors to understand his emotions.
Furthermore, Carl Lee’s attorney, Jake, explicitly states that to win the case “the jury needs to identify with the defendant”, and to create this link of identification Jake used empathy in his closing statement (TK). It is also important to note that before Jake’s closing statement the jurors had all decided that Carl Lee was guilty, so given that he was acquitted, we can safely infer that the case was won by Jake’s closing statement. Jake uses ethos and pathos to appeal to the jury in his last address to the court, he too uses an anecdote to vividly describe what Tonya went through to invoke empathy in the jury. He speaks about how her innocence and purity was violated. He also uses literary features such as groups of three to emphasize the trauma and the pain she went through. When describing her body, he states that it was, “raped, beaten and broken” in addition to this he says it was “soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen and soaked in her blood” (TK). The technique Jake used to deliver his statement is also critical in evaluating its effectiveness. He speaks extremely slow to make sure that he gives the jury enough time to not only hear what he says but internalize it too. Lastly, there is the use of discontinuous movement in the scene, the frame moves from Jake’s face to the jury and then to the Hailey family. This increases empathy in the audience because it allows the audience to see the people who were directly affected by what happened to Tonya as Jake relays it. As illustrated above this closing argument invoked an “empathic feeling of injustice”, the preference for equity, to communicate that Carl Lee deserves to be acquitted (Hoffman 238).
It could be argued that the immense use of pathos compromised the jury’s ability to use “rational emotions”, emotions we can trust in the law (Nussbaum 72), inhibiting them from being “judicious spectators”. According to Nussbaum a “judicious spectator” is not only able to use rational emotions but also has the ability to “care” for both the victim and the accused in a trial. A “judicious spectator” is an individual who is able to “vividly” imagine what it is like to be both parties in the trial, which is what him/her an ideal juror (73). However, I want us to consider the possibility that the jurors in the film were not judicious spectators until empathy was invoked in them. Evidence in the film leads us to believe that the jurors did not care for Carl Lee. In the beginning of the trial, one of the jurors refers to the fact that he has to go back to his family, implying that he does not regard Carl Lee’s life as important or deserving of his time. Furthermore, this vocal juror states, “that nigger is dead” after he initiated an informal vote before the end of the trial. This indicates that he had a preconceived verdict, further emphasizing his disregard for Carl Lee (TK). The use of pathos in Jake’s statement, “now imagine she’s white”, essentially assisted the jurors to be judicious spectators, allowing them to care for Carl Lee and appreciate what it is his family went through as well as consider the lives of the two boys who were killed. This statement allowed the jurors to empathize with Carl Lee possibly for the first time in the trial. Which is why I strongly believe that empathy promoted justice in the film A Time to Kill. Without empathy, the jurors were not going to be “judicious spectators” and ultimately acquit Carl Lee.
Hoffman, Martin L.”Empathy, Justice and the Law”. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives.Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Print.
(2011). pp 230-254. Print
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock. Warner Bros, 1996. Web. 20 Sept. 2016
Arc Shot. Arc Shot. N.p., n.d. Web. www.mediacollege.com/video/shots/arc.html 24 Sept. 2016
Nussbaum, Martha. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 53-78. Print.