When Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men premiered in 1957, I have to wonder what our predecessors thought. Back then, people did not fear homosexuality—they despised it; Jim Crow was both an idea and a man; and “Woman! Get to a kitchen!” was said for reproach and encouragement.
The scene is a jury room. Ungodly heat radiates from the walls and the 12 jurors note the uncooperative fan pinned in a corner like some depressing donkey poster at a birthday party no one wants to be at.
The case in question concerns a young boy from a slum who murdered his father at midnight. He then left the apartment and returned at three in the morning to retrieve the knife he had used for fear that it would be discovered by an investigator, only to be captured by a police officer waiting for him.
The jurors yearn for a guilty verdict. However, after hours of deliberation, during which time one juror misses his ball game, the jurors begin to realize that the facts may not be as accurate as they seem.
The boy these men are judging is also a girl. He is also a Negro, a poor man, and a Native American. He is Muslim, homosexual, transgender, Asian, and Jewish. He is the college grad who learned to be a plumber and the university dropout who is now cleaning floors at an Ivy League school.
He is me, and I am him.
“Look, you know how these people lie! It’s born in them!” Juror 10 (Ed Begley) says about people from the slums. “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us!”
The movie is a mixed bag of different ideas from each juror and Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), the initial opposition in the dissenting jury, does an excellent job at speculation. In the preliminary vote to see where everyone stands on the boy’s conviction, Juror 8 is the only one who asks, “Is it possible that this boy we are about to murder is not guilty?”
Mike D’Angelo and Leo McKinstry—writers for The A.V. Club and The Spectator—argue that the boy is no more innocent than Judas was at Gethsemane.
They may very well be right, but if you focus on whether the boy is guilty or not, then you’re missing a huge chunk of the film’s message.
As A.H. Weiler writes in The New York Times, “Reginald Rose’s excellent film elaboration of his fine television play of 1954, which arrived at the Capitol Saturday, is a penetrating, sensitive, and sometimes shocking dissection of the hearts and minds of men who obviously are something less than gods.”
This is a story of prejudice with an ironic twist. We expect—or at least we hope—that these disciples of the law will adhere to their Lady Justice and be blind to the background and social status of the accused.
However, as 12 Angry Men reveals, that is only a false ideal, which can be unsettling if we consider that these biases could be influencing the courtroom on a daily basis.