A Time to Kill (review)

Race Relations

A Time to Kill (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey) was directed by Joel Schumacher, the perpetrator of Batman and Robin, which I subjected myself to last week. Amazingly enough, this movie is almost as good as Batman and Robin was awful.

A Time to Kill demonstrates perfectly why John Grisham is always at the top of the bestseller lists. Never mind his awkward, stilted prose — the man tells compelling stories. And here we get his great story unhampered by bad writing.
In present-day Mississippi, a young black girl is kidnapped and — in a scene that is terrifying without being graphic — raped by two white… things who don’t deserve to be called human. These two pieces of trash are then shot dead by the girl’s father (Jackson). The father is tried for murder, defended by an attorney (McConaughey) who, refreshingly, isn’t the typical movie lawyer burning with idealism. The Klu Klux Klan and — at the other end of the spectrum — the NAACP move in to take sides as the town polarizes.

Frankly, I think the rapists deserved what they got, but we can’t have vigilante justice running our country — or can we? Is justice always moral? What is morality? Although it’s hardly the first movie or the best to do so, A Time to Kill struggles with these questions and the disparity, sometimes, between what is just and what is legal.

If nothing else, A Time to Kill is worth seeing for its cast: in addition to Jackson and McConaughey, there’s Kevin Spacey (his DA with political ambitions is mesmerizing even when he’s slimy), Donald Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Chris Cooper (as a cop accidentally shot by the enraged father, he’s got some touching moments), Charles Dutton, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, Kiefer Sutherland (in perhaps his most unflattering role, as a “good, God-fearing Klansman”), and Kurtwood Smith.

Some of the criticisms lobbed at A Time to Kill when it was first released are valid — it is another movie about race that ends up becoming about the white lawyer — but it makes some subtle commentary on racism that I don’t think I’ve seen before. And any movie that deals with prejudice on such an honest level is a good thing in my book.

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