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12 Angry Men: Is it 1957 or 2019?

Photo from: Talk Film Society

The courtroom (or jury room) drama, 12 Angry Men (1957), is not only a window into 1950’s United States, but is also a timeless story that has remained relevant through time and across countries.  The screenplay was originally written by Reginald Rose for television in 1954. Rose was inspired when he was on jury duty. He saw the drama of the courtroom and noticed that most television and movies focused on the courtroom and never showed jury deliberation. When proposed as a movie, many producers were reluctant to take on a film whose setting was only a jury room (a very boring looking jury room). Henry Fonda (juror number 8) took the risk with Rose and produced the movie.

Being made so long ago, I didn’t expect to recognize any of the actors. There were a few faces I knew though! Juror number one was Detective Alborgast from Psycho.

And juror number seven played Saul in While You Were Sleeping.

Photo from Bustle

The rest of the actors had other roles, but there was something else that drew my attention when I first saw the twelve jurors on screen; they were all middle-aged white men. Talk about a window into the 1950s! (from what I understand, an all white jury was unlikely even in the 1950’s, but the film was meant to be symbolic. I get the message they were intending.)

Photo from Carolina Theater

The cast was small (I mean, if you think about it, you can only fit so many people into one room). The only actors credited in the film were the twelve jurors. The accused wasn’t even in the credits! I think that is what makes this movie relatable over sixty years later. The original vote for guilty was driven by prejudices (racial, gender, and every other kind of perjudice there is). By not shining a light on the accused (there were hints that the accused murder was Hispanic, but that wasn’t clear), the audience was forced to rely on the juror’s words to picture the defendant. He was a “common ignorant slob” from the slums. The race could be filled in to suit the audience. In fact, the film was remade forty years later, directed by William Friedkin (I didn’t recognize his name until I looked him up on IMDB. He just directed a little film, The Exorcist). It was also redone in Germany (1963), Norway (1982), India (1986), Japan (1991), Russia (2007), France (2010), and China (2014). I think it’s safe to say that this movies message is universal.

Not only does the message come across time and space (throwing in some sci-fi for you there), it’s done so well. Producers were hesitant taking on a film with twelve cast members and one room, but the drama was so strong. It had me hooked through the whole movie.

Photo from Letterboxd

The scene is set when the jury is excused to the jury room to deliberate. Juror number one does his job as the jury foreman and asks the other jurors to participate in setting routines and ground rules for their discussion. They start with a vote. All vote guilty except one. The men are frustrated and hot (because there is a tropical storm going through New York and the fan in the room is broken. No central air conditioning either. Sounds rough). So the men just talk. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but the actors do a great job!

Photo from Tiff

There are some tropes among the jurors. There’s the guy who wants to vote whichever way gets him to his ball game fastest. There’s one who is so racists that the rest of the men tell him to just stop talking and he stands in the corner shunned by everyone (that was a good scene). Then there’s the heart broken father who just sees his son in the defendant. There were so many reasons the men voted guilty the first time, whether it was prejudice, past experience, or peer pressure, but none of it was because the evidence proved the boy was guilty. Juror eight, the only one to state not guilty imparted wisdom throughout the movie:

“Well, there were eleven votes for guilty. It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”

Photo from Movie House Memories

The bottom line being that our justice system is based on the honest efforts of the twelve jurors. The stakes can be at their highest and the system is fragile. It’s a scary thing. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was inspired to go into law because of the film. I can see why.

Photo from Decider

I was surprised by the dry humor in the script. Tension is high throughout the whole film, but there were characters continually sticking their foot in their mouths (mostly because they were wrong, but too stubborn to admit it. I have no idea what that’s like….). It was a relief chuckling at the snarky remarks towards the horribly racists comments.

“Juror #10: Bright? He’s a common ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English.

Juror #11: [who has a foreign accent] He *doesn’t* speak good English.”

The grammar teacher in me was cheering on the sidelines.

Photo from The Ace Black Blog

Drama was all in the conversation between the jurors. I loved it, but I do have to point out that visually, there wasn’t much going on. I was untangling yarn while watching this movie which helped keep my eyes busy so I could focus on the deliberation. The actors do a great job expressing there frustration and anger in their voices as well as their body language and faces. It goes to show just how good the script and cast were to have a movie that was visually stagnant, but still so nicely made. That’s why the movie has been remade around the world, The conflict is strong without obvious action.

After such a heavy topic in this movie, I’m going to pick something lighter from the list next time. I think it’s time for a drink and a good laugh!

From Giphy