12 Angry Men: Privileged White Men Hate On Minorities

The next film we'll be watching is 12 Angry Men, a 1957 courtroom drama starring Henry Fonda, in which twelve white men have to determine the guilt or innocence of an urban Hispanic youth.  Moral quandaries galore.

An eighteen-year-old boy is charged with the murder of his father.  After a trial, a jury has to decide either to set the boy free or send him to the electric chair.  Eleven vote guilty, one votes not guilty.  The only way they can get out of this room is to come to a consensus.

The lone hold-out, Juror #8, isn't convinced of the accused's guilt or innocence, but he argues that the boy's life is on the line and they should at least discuss the case for an hour or so before sending him to the chair.  So the group goes over the evidence, and as they examine it piece by piece, they come to realize that they case may not have been as open and shut as they thought.

I love the concept of this film.  I don't believe in the death penalty for a lot of reasons, but I guess one of the biggest things for me is the fact that the justice system is imperfect and I don't think that a person's life or death should be decided by an imperfect system.  I love that this movie tries to get in the heads of one group of jury members and show how they can be absolutely convinced of a man's guilt, willing to send him to the electric chair -- only to be convinced otherwise within an hour and a half.  It makes you wonder how many cases have been decided by such a jury, made up of people with crippling prejudices and tickets to baseball games and an unwillingness to spend a few hours talking about the case.

12 Angry Men has a brilliant display of subtly unique characters all trapped in a room together.  The actors do a great job creating distinct backgrounds that influence their beliefs and inform their decisions.  A mark of good writing is that you believe that these characters had lives before the film begins and will continue living after it ends.  They don't just exist for the hour and a half they're on screen.  The fact that this film accomplishes that without even telling you their names is a testament to the quality of writing and acting here.

I also like the subversion of cultural expectations of the time.  The societal outliers among the jury -- the man from the slums, the immigrant, and the elderly man -- seem more reasonable, compassionate, and willing to work together in a constructive manner, while the "pillar of society" middle-aged white men cling to their prejudices and rail against anyone who disagrees with them.

Overall I think that this is a really strong film that stands the test of time.  There's not a whole lot in 12 Angry Men that I don't think is relevant today.  I was doing a little casual research after watching this film, and I find that there's a good number of people online (specifically, on IMDB) who would still have voted guilty.  Which is so weird, because after watching that film I can't imagine walking away from thinking that the boy should go to the chair based on that evidence.  I don't know if he's innocent, but I certainly have enough doubt to stop me from voting guilty.  Did anyone watch this film thinking that the jury made the wrong decision?

Random Musings:

  • Is it weird to anyone else that this jury of peers doesn't involve any women?  Were women not required to do jury duty?  Or were they just too emotional to be trusted with something like that?

  • I love that this film is staged and written like a play.  Sometimes that doesn't work on screen, but here it creates a consistently engaging story which, taking place largely in one room, could run the risk of seeming stagnant (in lesser hands than Sidney Lumet, of course).  Another really interesting aspect of 12 Angry Men is its theatricality, which again, has the potential to seem stilted or contrived, but in this film accesses deeper emotions.

  • Wow -- I love that Juror #5 (the one from the slums) is offended when they are talking about how people from the ghetto are violent scum, and then they tell him he's being sensitive and that they're not talking about him, just people from slums in general.  What?!

  • I wonder if the government would reimburse you for a baseball game you had to miss because of jury duty?

  • "He's a common ignorant slob, he don't even speak good English."  Classic.  That's an insult worthy of the internets.

  • "I beg pardon --" "Beg pardon, what are you so polite about?" "For the same reason you're not.  It's how I was brought up." Love it.

  • Brilliant decision to not give the room any air-conditioning.  Nothing like a sticky, humid room to make a moral argument nice and tense.

  • I love the little nerdy guy with the high-pitched voice.  He's adorable when he tries to stand up for himself and everyone just ignores him.  I just want to give the little woobie a hug.

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