In light of recent events *cough, political, cough*, I thought it would be appropriate to share my analysis of the ever-classic and ever-poignant study of discrimination and justice, 12 Angry Men, by Sidney Lumet.
If you have not seen this film, I implore you to alter your weekend plans, give Henry Fonda your undivided attention, and watch it.
“He can’t hear you. He never will.”
This quote is spoken by Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) to Juror #9 in order to calm the indignation that the latter feels when he attempts to tell the group why he changed his vote to Not Guilty; Juror #7 leaves in the middle of the explanation, blatantly expressing his refusal to communicate and foster a healthy discussion environment. In a few words, Juror #8 has described the plight of many over the years in the never-ending pursuit of justice and understanding: if a person does not want to listen, then they will not. Even still with this defeatist view regarding Juror #7’s willful ignorance, Fonda’s character does not give in to despair, and effectively forces the scales of justice to swing the correct way. Amongst a group of fellow jurors who have their own reasons for voting on giving the death sentence to a boy who allegedly murdered his own father, Fonda makes the case for reasonable doubt, and their previously-held positions, one by one, are overturned; through particular and careful deliberation and questioning, it is shown that the seeds of racial and political injustice can be undone with vigilance, patience, and the willingness to listen. Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) showcases the uphill struggle that America continues to face with regard to justice and critical thinking in the shadow of prejudice; a correct verdict can be reached, and a correct outcome can be achieved – only if the lanes of communication between people remain open, and our biases and prejudgments are eradicated.
The historical environment in which the film was born was a very tense and volatile one in America. In the first half of the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement had begun, and active resistance to racial segregation in schools had started to form. In 1954, the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in schools illegal; in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched. A little over a year later, when 12 Angry Men was released, racial tensions were still peaking, as evidenced in the Little Rock Nine incident that occurred later that same year. With the legal divisions between the races becoming eliminated, emotional divisions remained very much at the surface of society.
Alongside racial tensions, the film also did not escape the influence of political tensions. McCarthyism – an era of supreme social anxiety and unrest – had recently come to a close, and had effectively left the country shaken and divided. This, coupled with the continuation of the Cold War, found America in a deep sense of dread and paranoia. The immediate future, while always not a guarantee, was especially not a surety during this time, with the nuclear arms race always floating in the peripheral consciousness of the world (when it was not at the forefront of it).
While the white, male, capitalist patriarchy was very much still in effect, racial desegregation and communism posed as risks to that structure. The film addresses these threats that the hegemonic America faced at home and abroad in multiple ways, as characters and their respective reasonings (or lack thereof) incorporate racial and political motivations; it further responds to its historical atmosphere by encompassing and incorporating themes of paranoia and apathy. And finally, it undercuts the force of the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-white jury and challenges the idea that the majority holds the right view.
When the first official vote is cast in the jury room, it can be seen that the jurors who raise their hands last in voting Guilty, end up being the first ones who change their votes: #s 5, 6, 9, and 11. This initial vote not only foreshadows the events to come and the order of the soon-to-be-swayed jurors, but also indicates reluctance in these individuals and the presence of peer pressure. These jurors might have possessed more reservations than the others, but since they saw they were voting with the bulk of the others, decided that they were voting in the right. Juror #8 is correct when he says that it was not easy for him to separate himself from the rest and vote Not Guilty, as in doing so, he effectively positioned himself before a gargantuan task, given the persuasive power of groupthink with regards to majority rule. As Phoebe Ellsworth discusses in her article, “One Inspiring Jury”:
Even for very easy perceptual judgments, such as comparing lines that clearly differed in length, a unanimous majority could induce a person to deny the evidence of his senses and agree that two lines were the same when he ‘knew’ they were different. (1396)
Clearly, when put in a situation where we are aware that we are outnumbered, we would rather betray our own knowledge and perceptions in order to remain with the larger group and avoid being singled out as a dissident. With further conversation and examination of the proposed facts of the case, Fonda (with eventual help from other jurors), begins to show the mounting evidence for the existence of reasonable doubt. As more discover that their initial votes were misplaced, there are still ones that remain vehement in their positions. These last few holdouts, whether stemming from racism (as with Juror #10 and his ‘us versus them’ mentality), or personal vendetta (Juror #3 and his feelings toward youth and discipline), signify the need to convict, the need to blame and punish someone by any means necessary, regardless of the possibility of innocence, especially if that certain someone is identified as an “Other”.
Another concept that the film explores that is equally damaging to the moral tendrils of society is that of apathy. For some of the jurors, this case is simply a task to fill their time, and hardly worth a second thought. From discussing an upcoming baseball game to playing Tic-Tac-Toe on the jury room table, the jurors take lightly something that should not be taken as such. In Nancy Marder’s work “The Banality of Evil: A Portrayal in 12 Angry Men”, she observes that in order to function effectively and properly, “The jury has to engage in serious thinking, and ‘thinking’s chief characteristic,’ Arendt reminds us, ‘is that it interrupts all doing, all ordinary activities no matter what they happen to be’ ” (894). Since they are quick to reach their own personal conclusions regarding the verdict, they carry on with normal conversation; at times, they even act as if they are not judging a murder trial at all, but simply attending a mandatory business meeting. As long as it is not themselves on trial, they deem it not worth the attention and sense of urgency. With the jurors all being white males, their identities as the majority are reinforced, along with their sense of security, thus allowing the nonchalant approach (as embodied in Juror #7) to exist. Luckily, these outlooks are breached by other jurors, uprooting the lackadaisical bed that the hegemony is accustomed to snoring and slobbering in. This disruption undermines the prevailing and grossly unchecked misconception that the popular perspectives are the proper ones to possess. Ellsworth claims that in watching the film, “we are reminded that the minority view can be the right view, even if the minority is only one, and that the only way to find out is by full disclosure” (1407).
While the film was a critical success upon its release, it did not do well with audiences until a few years later, when it was shown on television; this could be due to the fact that the film was presented in black-and-white, while television was the main mode of entertainment and the use of color (in both film and television) was on the rise (Dirks). But, despite a lackluster initial release at the theaters, the film has garnered widespread critical and viewer acclaim. Not only is it heralded as the second greatest courtroom drama by the American Film Institute, it also has demonstrated itself as a prominent instruction tool, not only with regard to cinema and filmmaking, but also the practice and development of communication (AFI). In her article, “One Reasonable and Inquiring Man: 12 Angry Men as a Negotiation‐Teaching Tool”, Susan Hackley writes that the movie is often shown at “law schools, business schools, and elsewhere to teach lessons about negotiation, group process, communication, decision making, team building, leadership, and critical thinking” (2). The film teaches people how to talk to one another, how to gain progress by discussing and thinking through things as a group by incorporating multiple viewpoints, and also demonstrates that consensus is the most desirable and effective outcome when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving. Concerning thematic and moralistic matters, the film sets itself apart from other works by probing into the deep, troublesome fissures of the human condition. As David Ray Papke writes in his article, “12 Angry Men Is Not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture”, that while “Pop cultural works about romantic action heroes or women in peril might provide escape, but 12 Angry Men truly edifies” (746). This is why the film has remained such an iconic and venerable piece; while all films are entertainment, few can be classified as a unique experience, and even fewer can be regarded as an exercise in examining one’s own personal growth, morals, and worldviews.
The film does an excellent job in addressing a myriad of social difficulties and hardships that marked the 1950s, from the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, to the lingering effects of McCarthyism, to the continuing stresses of the Cold War. It portrayed a jury that was all-male and all-white, and even though the judicial system strives for equality in all avenues, the presentation of the whites in power paradigm stands as a metaphor for the illusion of supposed diversity, and the dangers and potential pitfalls of that specific lack. Back then, the shifts in power were being felt everywhere: whether people were fighting for equality, or, conversely, trying to keep the control in their hands, the 1950s marked a turbulent time at the local, national, and global scales.
The conflict that resides at the heart of the film directly correlate with societal challenges that were present at the time the film was released. Sixty years later, the film’s arguments and messages still manage to resound in the political, social, and cultural climate that we find ourselves in – what had hobbled us in the fifties still continues to hobble us. The case in the film and the subsequent attitudes of members of the jury eerily relates to an incident regarding America’s current Commander-in—Chief. In 1989, in the case known as the Central Park Five, five African American and Latino teenagers were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. After they were in custody, Donald Trump spent $85,000 in advertisements that spanned four of the city’s newspapers. In the ads, the crime was referenced, along with the demand that the death penalty be reinstated in New York (Ross). Eventually, after the boys had served sentences and were released, the actual rapist confessed to the crime. Even still, with DNA evidence proving their innocence and a confession years later from a serial rapist, Trump has refused to acknowledge this and apologize for his catastrophic lapse of judgment. As disquieting as it is, he – along with many others who support capital punishment – remains “verdict driven”, instead of “evidence driven” (Ellsworth 1404). Ross goes on to state that Trump “used the Central Park Five to differentiate himself from his political opponent. He stoked support for solutions inconsistent with the law. And he refused to admit any error.” While it is appalling that such a prominent and powerful public figure holds such questionably rigid beliefs towards the very life of another, even after being proven incorrect, it is even more puzzling that that same figure has become a political one, with the support of many in this alleged land of the free, in this country of immigrants. In his enlightening article, “12 Angry Men Is More Relevant than Ever in the Age of Trump,” Nathan Rabin claims that:
Like Cobb’s villain, Trump’s primary motivation often seems to be a sour, unshakable conviction that a non-white person accused of something is almost assuredly guilty – and that we, as white people, owe it to ‘real Americans’ (i.e., other white people) to punish them.
At least in the film, most of the jurors clearly saw the errors of their thinking, albeit through a grueling and painstaking discussion process. We in this nation have to remember the virtues and merits that are contained in media artifacts such as 12 Angry Men and not forget that acceptance and tolerance remains within our grasp, in spite of what we fear otherwise. People need to not be afraid to be altruistic, and be willing to accept other ways of life. The process of acceptance actually mirrors the legal process within the film: to accept other ways of living does not necessarily mean one has to agree with them (or, rather, to strictly believe that the boy is innocent), but to simply do no harm, and not condemn it (assume that he is guilty and vote for death).
In conclusion, 12 Angry Men and its denouement continues to serve as a marker of the ideal of “pure justice”, and how America remains far from attaining it; this type of justice exists in a society where bigotry and racism do not taint the law and how it is administered. Although justice is a desirable goal in every society, pure justice is extremely difficult to attain, and might always stay an ideal, instead of a reality. The same reasoning for the inability to develop a perfect, flawless computer can be used to explain the inability for pure justice to be reached: both technology and justice come from humans, and humans are full of flaws. Our juries are no exception, and neither is Lumet’s; Marder claims: “As long as they fail to take their task seriously, and succumb to indifference through bias, boredom, or haste, among other weaknesses, then mistakes will be made” (895). It was close to a miracle that a Fonda-type was seated in that jury, because in mimicking what happens many times in real life, the defendant would have been put to death, not due to evidence, but due to incompetency on the part of the human jurors. Ellsworth continues on with this idea, and asserts that “Although never explicitly stated, it stands for the idea that convicting the innocent is a far greater miscarriage of justice than acquitting the guilty, an idea that needs constant and vigilant reinforcing” (1406). While it is virtually impossible to achieve a perfect record of correct convictions, an innocent person should never be imprisoned (or, the more ghastly fate that happens too many times, sadly, put to death). Even one innocent person falsely imprisoned among ninety-nine criminals is still not acceptable, and should not be tolerated.
Interestingly, one of the biggest revelations in the film is the idea that certainty can serve as the enemy, the erosion of rational and complex thought. In their piece “Deliberation in 12 Angry Men”, Babcock and Sassoubre claim that “The truth, we soon realize, is unknowable” (635). How can we be sure about what we know? The answer is: we cannot, and it is arguable that we ever truly can. That said, one might wonder why it is that we have issues with admitting that we are not sure about a specific fact, that we find it incapable of saying the words, “I do not know”. For some reason, humans try to make everything seem certain, and absolute. People ingrain this way of thinking into their psyches so intensely that the beliefs that they “know” the truth about become not only part of their personality, but their identity; this is partly why they become so indignant and staunch when it comes to their rightness – if one of their supposed truths are challenged and threatened, so is their identity.
In a way, it is depressing, to know that we are still embattled with the same afflictions that we were decades ago, and, in some cases, centuries ago. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the essay “Self-Reliance” in 1841; in it, he championed the concept to “Trust thyself” (270), and that “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (272). Why can’t we, as a species, adopt these ideals, synthesize them into our consciousness, and truly and openly live by them? The answer might be that our collective development is stagnant, and we have simply not evolved that far yet. Evolution can be a very slow process, especially when attitudes and ideals are concerned. For as much as we have progressed, cultivated, and invented, our ignorance and biases still remain within us. In 12 Angry Men, good does prevail, but we are left with a sobering and imperative message: we as individuals need to be mindful of our own choices and actions if we want to see this world improve. As Marder states in her work:
One interpretation of the film’s ending is that good will triumph over evil. Another interpretation is that we cannot count on having a Fonda on our jury, or in our society, so it behooves each of us to play this role and to guard against our own indifference, whether manifested as haste, bias, or malaise. (897)
We should all want to be as virtuous and moralistic as Fonda’s Juror #8, and due to the popularity and reverence the film has received, the majority of us do; but, in order for this to be accomplished, and for humanity to improve itself, we need to think outside ourselves, and try to live inside another person’s proverbial shoes. The best we can do, as it turns out, is to constantly try our best, every day, to understand one another. This includes not resting into a way of thinking simply because it was our parents’, striving to appreciate all sides of a view or idea before making a decision, and standing up for the ones that cannot defend themselves. Then and only then can we hope to become more emotionally intelligent, understanding, and competent human beings, and leave this world a better place than we found it: a place where everyone and everything is comfortable and has what it needs, free from fear and judgment.
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