Movie Review – 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men (1957)
Written by Reginald Rose
Directed by Sidney Lumet

What is justice? Any direct education I was ever given in America never taught me the answer. That was found in observation, reading, and listening. American institutions spend much time telling people what to believe justice is. They do it through copaganda like Law & Order, CSI, and the other generic procedurals that get vomited up on television every year. My perennial punching bag Aaron Sorkin spent a lot of time musing over law & justice in his work too. But what we see on the screen in this regard rarely reflects what is happening in real-time all around us. And, as much as I love 12 Angry Men as a piece of art, it doesn’t show us anything close to the truth about how the justice system operates in America. What it does instead is to provide an impressionistic breakdown of the ideologies that keep America from being a place where freedom actually exists.

For the unfamiliar, on a sweltering summer afternoon, a group of jurors deliberates. They’ve just heard the trial of a youth charged with murdering his father. When the foreman (Martin Balsam) takes up the initial vote, it’s almost a landslide for “guilty.” That is except for Juror 8 (Henry Fonda). This causes around half the men to roll their eyes as they have better things to do and are assured the kid did it. However, Juror 8 won’t relent because if the boy is found guilty, he will get the death penalty. So the emphasis becomes on the idea of reasonable doubt and how, if there is an ounce of that present, it is immoral to convict a person, especially to death. Over 90 minutes, the jurors go through arguments in favor of and against guilt, with Juror 8 pointing out significant inconsistencies in the prosecution’s witnesses and how everything cited was circumstantial. By the end, we get the ending we would like, a happy one. But in America, that is not a common outcome, sadly.

The jurors most aggressive towards Juror 8 represent the various obstacles to progress in American society. Juror 7 (Jack Warden) is apathetic & a troll. He just wants to go to the Yankees game that he has tickets for that evening. He’s quick to vote guilty and not think much about this person’s life he would be ending. Juror 4 (E.G. Marshall) is your Ben Shapiro “facts don’t care about your feelings” type, masking his personal prejudices as the logical outcome of looking at the “facts.” Juror 10 (Ed Begley) is the voice of racism. While the ethnic background of the accused is intentionally obscured to the audience, Juror 10 loudly professes that “those people” always get into these sorts of things, and it was no surprise to him. 

Each of these men goes through a relatively speedy synthesis of the ideas Juror 8 is speaking to. Juror 7 is eventually shamed into voting not guilty; he’s probably the least sympathetic. Juror 4 is pressed on the details surrounding the witness testimony, and Juror 8 has to go hard at him, pushing him to acknowledge the reality behind the people who testified. Eventually, he relents, and you realize this has broken part of Juror 4. Good. People like him need to be broken. Juror 10 is shamed by the group for his racism, even by the guys that agree with his guilty verdict. He keeps yammering on & on, taking off the mask to the point that even his allies are disgusted with him. It’s very fitting that he spends the last 20 minutes or so of the film alone in a chair off to the side, coming to terms with how deep the roots of his hatred run.

I find the juror that represents the majority of Americans is Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb), a man who admits early on that he was reminded of his own estranged relationship with his son by the case. His guilty verdict is the hardest to sway because it’s tangled up in his personal grievances. This is the way of most Americans I’ve known. Their beliefs come purely out of personal wrongs. Now, it is logical for a person to be shaped by their direct experiences. But what doesn’t often happen in America is a deep analysis & reflection of our lives and other people’s lived experiences. It’s a narcissism that is an aspect of the mind we are born with but exacerbated by a hyper-individualistic society. Not every opinion is valid or worthy of discussion, particularly if your point of view is mired in hate & anger. We can be hurt and yet still love others by understanding the cause of the injustices we experience. In the case of Juror 3, he is the architect of his own misery. He was so hard on his kid that the young man walked away and never came back. Instead of accepting the consequences of his actions, Juror 3 dug deeper into a hole of hate, letting his mind soak in that rancor & spite. The result is that he’s not entirely a human anymore, but a husk, human on the outside but hollow within. Juror 8’s breaking is the one that seals the deal that saves the life of a young man on the verge of being killed by the state.

Now, as much as I like the message of 12 Angry Men and how it is so well written, I also acknowledge that this is not the reality of courtrooms across the United States. The writer, Reginald Rose, was presenting an idealized version of the world he would like to have seen. I know this because segregation was still being practiced across the United States at the time. The world was not a just & fair place, and white supremacist ideology dominated the justice system. These days you may see more people of color working as part of the court or law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean much. Its surface level changes while the roots of the justice system are just as oppressive & dominated by supremacy ideology as ever. We believe Juror 8 could rally his fellow jurors to see reason and acknowledge reasonable doubt. That is highly unlikely. 

Instead, we live in a world where a homeless man, expressing his anger at being forgotten, likely having a mental breakdown, is strangled to death by a psychotic ex-Marine on a New York Subway. Or someone cuts another person off on the interstate, intentionally or not, and gets filled with lead. Or a child’s soccer ball rolls into someone’s yard, and the owner shoots up the kid. Or someone is firing guns while the neighbors’ are trying to put their baby to sleep, is asked to knock it off, and proceeds to commit mass murder on the neighbors. Or you’re just going to school, work, or the supermarket, and an unhinged psychopath ginned up on hate rhetoric from America’s own brand of nazis comes in and ends your and a dozen other people’s lives. If you remade 12 Angry Men today, Juror 8 would probably get attacked afterward for making Juror 7 miss his precious baseball game.

We admire media like 12 Angry Men because they make us feel better about ourselves and our nation. It is indeed a remarkable piece of art, one of the great American theater pieces, yet it is a comforting lie. We, Americans, are not noble & good people. We are selfish pigs. We ravage the world and are aghast when the consequences of our actions snap back on us. We foment war across the planet so that a handful of already obscenely wealthy weapons manufacturers get richer. We allow people to fall into complete destitution and then malign them as subhuman simply for suffering the consequences of other people’s destructive actions. We then kill them on subways because they make us uncomfortable when they voice their rage at the system that reduced them to a mass of scars. 

There was a time in my life when I would have heaped praise on 12 Angry Men for being more than a beautiful piece of writing. But ultimately, that is all it is. It isn’t anywhere close to reflecting the time it was made as it is for our contemporary woes. The wrongly accused rarely get justice in courts in America. We’ve sent people to die who were completely innocent, and they have been executed. That’s simply a fact. From my perspective, the type of change needed to turn America into a world where Juror 8 could change people’s hearts & minds is nearly impossible. That’s not a “positive” note but an honest one. We are not admirable people, we are a disgusting, shameful, and thankfully crumbling society.


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