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Broken Compass Mires 'A Time to Kill'

August 12, 1996|KEVIN R. DAVIS | Kevin R. Davis is an actor and screenwriter

Kenneth Turan lambastes "A Time to Kill" fair enough, but he misses what is by far the most striking fault of the movie ("Throwing the Book at Them," July 24). In a cultural medium that is often used to convey messages of morality, this film stands out for the blatant immorality of the position it takes.

The story has a 10-year-old black girl brutally raped, beaten and left for dead in a small Mississippi town. Her assailants are two 23-year-old white men of no redeeming virtues that we are shown. No one sees the crime except us, the audience. Even the victim does not know her assailants by name and, in the hospital critically injured, can only describe the beat-up yellow pickup truck in which they were riding. But she survives and, though she will never bear children, by film's end we see her reach a substantially full recovery.

But shortly after the crime, the sheriff, a black man, arrests the two scumbags. Though his deputies are white, no one appears to have the slightest sympathy for the suspects, who get slugged around during the arrest. One of the deputies has been pals since childhood with the victim's father, played by Samuel Jackson. In the station, one of the assailants confesses in writing.

At this point, there is no reason to believe that the two heinous criminals won't get a fair trial, even in Mississippi, except for a verbal reference by Jackson to some white guys who unjustly "got off" the previous year for some crime in the neighboring county. After all, this is "the new South," lawyer Matthew McConaughey will later boast.

But Jackson, in a fit of fatherly rage, isn't waiting for the trial. As the two suspects are being led handcuffed into the courthouse for their arraignment, the very first step in the legal process, Jackson guns them down in cold blood and wounds the deputy who is his good friend, crippling him for life when his leg has to be amputated.

The entire movie, with McConaughey as its legal conscience, takes a position in support and justification of this action. This is unconscionable, irresponsible moviemaking and Warner Bros. should be ashamed to release such a wrongheaded lesson. Director Joel Schumacher goes overboard to wring every inch of emotional mileage out of the horror of the crime, as Turan rightly complains. But his complaint is artistic when it should be ethical--this stirred emotion is used only to justify Jackson's killings. And the filmmakers mobilize the Ku Klux Klan against Jackson to further rouse our sympathies.

*

But after you walk out of the theater and your head clears, the facts are this: The victim's father was acting purely out of vengeance. He didn't know for sure that the suspects were the actual assailants, or that both of them participated in the beating and rape--even though we, the audience members, do. (Remember, he doesn't have our vantage point.) And they were in custody, bound in handcuffs, when he killed them before he even knew whether or not they'd be convicted or learned any other facts of the crime that the trial might have brought to light.

Then there is one other murder in the movie that goes ignored altogether. During a Klan demonstration that erupts into a melee with blacks and plenty of anti-Klan whites, a black youth on a roof drops a Molotov cocktail on a Klansman who is burned to death in grisly, writhing agony. But nothing is ever said about that crime in the entire film. Never another reference. Not a word. Whatever happened to that black youth? Was he ever caught and arrested? Did he get a fair trial? Or did he get shot down in cold blood by kin of his victim? If so, would the filmmakers defend that action? We aren't supposed to care, I reckon, because (wink) his victim was a Klansman.

Look, I first joined the NAACP in college and became a lifetime member a decade ago. My favorite charity is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sued the KKK into bankruptcy by winning a $7-million judgment against it in the 1970s. But this movie is outrageous in its contempt for due process of law just because the victim is black--and equally disgraceful in its contempt for the life of a man because he is a member of the Klan. (It also smacks of racism in that the only two men in the film who commit murder are black and their victims are white.) Not every film must be a morality play, certainly, but if it is going to posture as one, as this film does, then it had better have its moral compass pointing in the right direction.

This is shameful moviemaking by Schumacher and Warner Bros.

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