A Time to Kill – does empathy promote justice?

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.

Work Cited
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.

12 thoughts on “A Time to Kill – does empathy promote justice?

  1. What I think I was able to do fairly well is look at specific areas in the film where empathy was provoked and how this was achieved – the varying techniques used to invoke empathy. Being able to discuss both elements of delivery and content gave the analysis deeper meaning.

    I do, however, have concerns with my balance between empathy and its role in justice in this film. I felt like I could have spoken a little more about justice. My blog seems like it is more focused on empathy that its role in justice.

    Out of the bullet points that explain what a good blog contains which element did I not have, or could have communicated better? i.e. thesis statement, definitions etc

  2. The thesis is clearly identifiable and it aims to answer the question posed in the prompt. “This is because law is a set of rules made by society and when the film was set societal norms were not ‘just’ and it is for this reason that I would argue that empathy did promote justice because justice could not be found in the law.”
    I think your best use of evidence from the movie is the quote you used in your first paragraph about how Carl Lee Hailey could not get a fair trial in the south because it is at the very essence of your argument. Hailey did not believe justice could be served in his racist community so he felt as though he needed to take matters into his own hands.
    I feel like every time you reference the movie, you also supply ample evidence as to why that scene is important is answering your thesis. The only thing I would change is acknowledging the other side of the argument, that maybe justice was not served, and give an example from the film as to why that may be the case. Of course, once you acknowledge the other side of the argument, reinforce the fact that your side of the argument is right. This is just to eliminate some bias (which everyone has).
    You did a good job using the external texts to set clear definitions for the key terms in your paper and then used these definitions to help answer your question. I like how you used both sources to answer you thesis. I would, especially for the two terms in the conclusion, expand upon how those were seen in the film because as it is right now, it almost looks like you are throwing in the definitions just to throw them in. I do, however, really like that you incorporate the definitions into your conclusion because the reader does not need to search for these terms when you use them to conclude your argument. I think as a whole, you use the external sources very effectively.
    To answer your question, I think you nailed all of the bullet points dead on so great job with that. I guess so I can leave you with something to think about, you could try to use examples outside of the definitions from the external texts to reinforce the argument made by your thesis but you did a great job and I liked reading this because you made the opposite argument from what I made and did a great job with it.

  3. 1. “His crimes for the rape is justified because of society’s unfairness towards black people and the high probability that the white men would not be properly punished. Therefore, Joel Schumacher, the director, must use empathy instead of the law throughout the movie to argue that justice was served and that Carl Lee should be found not guilty.” This thesis answers the question prompted, it also makes the author’s stance on the subject clear.
    2. I thought that the most powerful piece of evidence used was the quote “there was too much damage. She ain’t never have kids” (A Time to Kill). When I read this, I heard it as Carl Lee would say it, which made it more powerful. Samuel L. Jackson does an excellent job playing the part of Carl Lee, and makes this quote mean more by putting emotion behind his words. Such great emotion, in fact, that I remember it a week after watching the film. This serves the authors argument really well because of the empathic response I automatically have to the quote.
    3. I believe that the very first quote used in the second paragraph could be strengthened. It doesn’t quite feel necessary in the paragraph, as the other quotes have better explanations. I feel that it could be improved a bit by changing the quote introduction.
    4. I think that the author needed to use Hoffman’s reading in order to explain the use of empathy while talking about Jake Brigance’s closing speech. It explains empathy in a form that the reader can understand how the closing speech really worked. This is made abundantly clear throughout the paragraph, as the author uses quotes from the film then explains them using text from Hoffman’s work.

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