Is A Time to Kill Based on a True Story?

‘A Time to Kill’ is a legal drama film that revolves around the rape of a young African-American girl by the name of Tonya Hailey by two white men, Billy Ray Cobb and James Willard, as well as their failed attempt to kill her in Canton, Mississippi. When the police find out about the crime, Cobb and Willard are immediately arrested but then are later killed in a shootout by Tonya’s father, Carl Lee Hailey.

Hailey is, in turn, arrested for the revenge killing, and his defense is taken up by lawyer Jake Brigance, somebody who’d helped his family before as well. Directed by Joel Schumacher, the 1996 film’s poignant and thought-provoking storyline is elevated by the nuanced performances of Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. But is there any truth behind the story? Let’s dive in and find out together!

Is A Time to Kill a True Story?

No, ‘A Time to Kill’ is not a true story. Akiva Goldsman, who penned the screenplay for the film, adapted it from John Grisham’s eponymous debut novel, published in 1989. The events mentioned in the book, and subsequently the movie, however, were inspired by an actual case that Grisham was privy to. In 1984, the year in which the story is set as well, Grisham was witness to the trial of Willie James Harris, who’d been accused of rape and the attempted murder of two sisters, one 12 years old and the other 16.

As the younger of the two sisters narrated her harrowing experience in a room full of only lawyers and reporters, Grisham found himself getting angrier and angrier at the accused. In an interview with The Clarion-Ledger, he mentioned that during a break in the trial proceedings, he found himself staring at Harris and wondering what would the State do to a father who was accused of killing his daughter’s rapist. That was the first inkling of ‘A Time to Kill,’ which took Grisham three years to complete.

When asked what attracted him to the story enough to make a film out of it in an interview with KCTV 5, director Joel Schumacher said that he got to know John Grisham while filming ‘The Client’ and simply wanted to adapt ‘A Time to Kill’ because he believes it to be the author’s best work. Going even deeper, the latter also brings attention to the rampant racism which has plagued the country for over two centuries.

The aforementioned point is presented through stark imagery in the film, such as the march of the Ku Klux Klan and their other related activities in order to stop the trial. However, a lot more emotionally charged moment that pertains to the racial divide would be when Samuel L. Jackson’s Carle Lee tells McConaughey’s Brigance that he hired him because he was white, and the way he’d been raised will forever have him look down on black people, even if it is unintentional. “I’m a product of segregation and I don’t have any illusions about what America has been, what it is, and what it can be,” said Samuel L. Jackson in an interview with KCTV 5.

Opening further about his own experiences with racism and whether or not he had carried it over into the role of Carl Lee in ‘A Time to Kill,’ the actor added, “And so, as I travel, I see things that change and I see things that remain the same, uh, and I am not shocked or surprised by the people’s reactions or their attitudes towards me sometimes until people recognize or realize who I am.”

Though not a true story in its entirety, the themes of racism, sexual assault, and the biases that are rooted in the judicial system make ‘A Time to Kill’ a story whose aspects people have personally experienced in their lives. And if not for anything else, the raw acting by both Samuel L. Jackson as a grieving and rightfully angry father and McConaughey as his lawyer relentlessly pursuing justice is worth watching the film alone.

Read More: Best Legal Drama Movies of All Time