I have somehow avoided, for all of my post-18-year-old years, having to serve on a jury. The only time I received a summons, I had a minor surgery that kept me from attending. (These statements will, of course, guarantee that I get a summons next week.) That is to say, I have no idea whether the procedures in 12 Angry Men (1957; to borrow on Hoopla, or for rent on other streaming services) are accurate to what juries do, either then or now.
What is clear is that if this movie were made now, it would never be called 12 Angry Men. Whether or not such a jury would have been convened even in the 1950s is questionable. But as one reviewer pointed out, the fact that all the jurors superficially resemble one another might lead both them and the viewer to think that they are all culturally and ideologically the same, when their different backgrounds, motivations, assumptions, and perspectives are far from identical.Additionally, I half-expected Henry Fonda’s character to be the real murderer (which no doubt would have been the case if this were directed by Hitchcock).
I am not going to be able to add anything original to what has been written in the last 65 years about the brilliance of this film. Even so, since it was my first watch (thanks, Brian Anderson, for the recommendation!), several things make this film as powerful as it was when it was first made (though its box-office reception was poor). The story is contained almost entirely within the jury room. Certainly crime and punishment are inherently dramatic. Lumet, however, produces the drama not so much from the actual crime, or the actual punishment, but from the deliberations concerning both.
One issue that does not come up in the film is any discussion based in religious conviction or belief. It is striking to me that no one, at any time, refers to a religious basis for supporting or opposing the death penalty, or for or against any point made for the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
One issue at the heart of the film is the presentation of the legal system. There is division among the jurors with regard to their assumptions about the legal system, about lawyers, and about the truthfulness of witnesses. Some assume that witnesses would have no reason to lie or to speak confidently about things that they may or may not have seen or heard. Others naturally believe that while a given witness may not be mistaken or lying, it is at least possible for some people to be mistaken or to lie. Further, there is the question of whether every defendant receives the best possible defense from his or her attorney. The film depicts the genius of the system, as well as its potential problems.
Another theme is the difficulty of separating facts and interpretation. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney are interpreting the established facts in a way sympathetic to their respective cases. But as the jurors demonstrate, what counts as a fact is not necessarily clear. There may be mitigating circumstances (a loud train going by) or additional facts (the ability to purchase a knife that was thought to be unique) that may call those interpretations into question. Presumably, as at least one juror says, the defense lawyer ought to have interrogated those interpretations in his case, but if not, there are questions that remain to be answered before someone is punished by execution.
Whether or not these legal questions are depicted accurately in the film, the more significant issue is the interactions of this group of people. The dramatic question around the defendant’s guilt or innocence is secondary in the movie to the drama between characters in the jury room. Here is a cross-section of personalities, with all their idiosyncrasies and experiences, who are expected to come to a single conclusion on the basis of what they have all heard.
Everyone comes to decisions, and to momentous decisions perhaps even more so, with all their assumptions and prejudices built up within them. As Davis (Juror #8; Fonda) says at one point, after a final outburst by Juror #10: “It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth.” #10 and #3 are the angriest of the jurors, and both let their anger and emotion—either because of #3’s own family situation, or because of #10’s prejudice toward “those people”—run their decision-making. They had prejudices about children or about particular ethnicities, and so their minds were made up before they ever heard any discussion of the evidence.
This highlights a more modern prejudice about certain groups of people. We tend to assume, partly because people have identified themselves by their own group or tribe, that a certain group of people is monolithic in its opinions, beliefs, and morality. As much revulsion as we feel at Juror #10’s prejudice, the continual reinforcement in the media, in entertainment, on social media of a politics (and the personal is, more than ever, the political) bound to identity (even how many different identities we can fuse into one in our self-expression) shows that we act in much the same way. It’s just that we’ve been well-trained to accept certain prejudices while rejecting others.
Perhaps the single theme that resonates most today is the group versus the individual. We are initially tested in our own thinking by Juror #8’s independence in his lone not-guilty vote. How easily would we go along with a group, even if we have misgivings about it? It’s been suggested that the film is a commentary on the McCarthy era or Communism. But what gives it its long-standing power is that, regardless of any initial targets, group-think and the predilections of angry mobs regarding any opposition persist everywhere. This sort of pressure from the majority is perhaps even more prevalent today than in the 1950s—although now it doesn’t come from one or two directions, but from every angry group who feel that their existence is threatened by “them.” 12 Angry Men is a warning to every person who jumps to a conclusion based on either the individual or the group. It may not be in terms of the death penalty, but it carries judgment and destruction nonetheless.