Closing Arguments in Movies that "Kill"
Movies often do not accurately portray legal concepts and procedures. In fact, in real courtrooms throughout America, many lawyers ask potential jurors in the voir dire (i.e. jury selection) whether they watch movies or television shows relating to the law. Lawyers generally do this in an attempt to educate jurors about the pitfalls and inaccuracies that Hollywood portrays in the legal system. For example, forensic evidence takes much, much longer to develop and produce that over a ½ hour in a hit television series. However, Hollywood has produced some superb legal based movies with memorable closing arguments.
If you’ve read the article "The Art of a Closing Argument,"
you have a basic understanding of how closing arguments work. Now that you know the basics, in this article we’ll look at two popular American films that have truly memorable closing arguments: A Time to Kill,
and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Next, we’ll go over one Hollywood movie with a "killer" closing argument.
A Time to Kill
A Time to Kill is a 1996 movie directed by Joel Schumacher. Based on the novel written by John Grisham, this movie has a truly star-studded cast. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Ashley Judd, make up the main characters in the story. The setting is Clanton, Mississippi, a town still plagued by racism, as well as the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The movie is about an African-American man, played by Jackson, who hides out in a courthouse and kills the two white men who brutally raped and injured his young daughter, robbing her of her ability to ever conceive a child of her own. Jackson’s character, Carl Lee Hailey, kills these men because in a similar case four white boys were acquitted after raping a young African-American girl. Carl Lee fears that the seeds of racism are planted too deeply for people to convict these white men and ensure that justice is truly served. As a result of taking matters into his own hands, Carl Lee is arrested and jailed, and charged with the murder of his daughter’s assailants. Throughout the course of the trial, Carl Lee’s attorney, Jake Brigance (played by McConaughey), as well as the other cast members, are constantly faced with serious roadblocks, such as house fires, physical beatings, death threats, and emotional breakdowns.
At the near-end of the movie, Brigance delivers a closing argument before a packed courthouse. His closing argument is not only the psychological culmination of the trial, but the climax of the entire movie. During his closing argument, Jake Brigance instructs the jury members to close their eyes. Confused, they close their eyes, wondering what is to come (ah, the effect of a momentary cliffhanger). Then, slowly, he appeals to all senses of the jurors in his descriptive story during which he paints the painful portrait of the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter. As the camera focuses in on the jurors, one woman has tears streaming out of her closed eyes. (Insert this picture here.) The jurors are overcome by emotions, and it is clear that this is the first moment where all of them are truly considering the evidence of the case minus the pink elephant in the room—the fact that Carl Lee is black. At the end of his closing argument, Brigance leaves the jurors with a dramatic final line that lingers in the air—he tells the jurors to imagine that the little girl in the story is white.
The jury ultimately returns a "not guilty" verdict in favor of Carl Lee—a verdict that would not have resulted but for the articulate and forceful closing argument of Jake Brigance. His ability to tie the case together with the simple use of an emotional story demonstrates just how important closing arguments can be in any given case. Although there are many ways to deliver a closing argument, the attorney in this case does it in a way that appeals to the emotions of the jurors, and in a way that appeals to their overall sense of justice, regardless of race.
Next, we’ll go over the closing argument in an American classic.
To Kill a MockingBird
Another truly memorable closing argument is the argument in To Kill a Mockingbird. This movie, based on Harper Lee’s critically acclaimed novel, was directed by Robert Mulligan, and released in 1962. The main themes of both the novel and film deal with the issues of race and injustice in a world where people are judged by their outward appearance and color. Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, is the attorney who is appointed to represent Tom Robinson, an African-American man who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white female in the community. The truth of the matter is that Mayella was beaten and raped by her own father for crossing the boundaries of color and kissing a black man (Tom Robinson).
Throughout the course of the trial, the evidence begins to weigh heavily in favor of Tom Robinson’s defense. In fact, it becomes very clear that he is guilty of nothing except having the wrong color skin in an era where color and race means everything. Regardless of the evidence, both Tom and Atticus know that the jury has not been swayed. But Atticus still delivers a closing argument that adheres to the basics discussed in Act II of this article.
The most compelling part of his argument is his conclusion, which clearly is meant to appeal to each juror’s sense of justice. In his conclusion, Atticus Finch states:
Now, gentlemen, in this country our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!
Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family.
In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.
Here, Atticus not only appeals to their sense of justice, but he also vocalizes his confidence in them. He tells them that he is confident they will make the right decision. He combines his faith in them with a forceful reminder that it is their duty under God to deliver justice in a prejudiced and unjust world. Lastly, he asks them to believe in the man who is Tom Robinson, a man who is deeper than the color of his skin.
Unlike A Time to Kill, the jury is not persuaded to find the black man to be innocent, and a guilty verdict is delivered. Regardless of the outcome of the case, Atticus Finch’s closing argument has gone down in history as one of the most eloquent, forceful, and heartfelt moments in movie history. As an attorney, he did everything he could to sway the jurors into doing the right thing. Unfortunately, the overarching beliefs of the time outweighed the power of his words.
Finally, we’ll conclude with a few main points.
Hollywood movies dealing with the law and closing arguments tend to dramatize the main emotional themes. However, creating a theme to "kill" in a closing argument should be the goal of every lawyer in any case.
Finally, if you are ever called to jury duty, and hear the closing argument, perhaps you’ll close your eyes and picture Jake Brigance or Atticus Finch delivering their last lines to the jury. But remember, separate Hollywood from the real world and keep an open mind to facts of each case.
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