To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.
The lone moral voice chirping out from the roar of an equally righteous mob is an American idea that cinema has celebrated since its inception. Taking up the cause of others is an essential aspect of our being, and in an art form that excels in delivering empathy, movies have always been a significant ingredient to our moral upbringing. When the munchkins can’t fight for themselves, Dorothy marches down the yellow brick road to aid in their freedom against the Wicked Witch of the West. When a gang of killers descends upon Hadleyville, Marshall Gary Cooper must fend for the lives of his townspeople even when they refuse to take up arms alongside him in High Noon. Mr. Smith goes to Washington a stooge but returns a conquering hero because he refuses to allow the business of politics to corrupt his soul. You may scream that the sky is orange, but it’s my national duty to yell back, “It’s blue.” Hollywood told me so.
I spent this year’s Fourth of July celebrations watching both the 1957 and 1997 versions of 12 Angry Men. It has to be the definitive example of that lone voice, and as such, I cannot think of a more patriotic movie to revel in while the fireworks erupt around my neighborhood. Reginald Rose’s screenplay is a painfully honest look at how human behavior can muck up our judicial system but remains hopeful that simple conversation will sustain our principles. After an afternoon battling it out on social media, I wonder if this is still possible in our modern age, but get me in a room with some people willing to converse, and I still believe an understanding can be met amongst the combatants. It might get ugly, and we may all miss the ballgame, but a nation only lasts if we’re keen to talk to each other.
The heroism of 12 Angry Men does not rest in the one voice against the eleven, but in Juror Number 8’s only desire to have that discussion. After six days on trial, eleven jurors walk into a room with their minds convinced that the 18-year-old kid accused of killing his father is 100% guilty. They don’t need to gab about it, the verdict is obvious. Send him to the chair. Juror 8 initially only votes Not Guilty because sending a boy off to die should not be committed because the air conditioning is busted, and the Yankees are in town.
The original film opens with a ground level slow upward pan along the sturdy columns of the courthouse. This is where justice lives; this is where right is decided from wrong. Director Sydney Lumet sets the grave responsibility of the players in quick succession. A judge explains to the juror’s box, “This has been a long and complicated case…premeditated murder is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts.” The accused sits wide-eyed with worry as the twelve men shuffle out from their seats, and Kenyon Hopkins’ score literally plays the violins. The films transitions with a fade from the child’s face to the cramped quarter’s of the jury’s room; within these four walls, his fate will be sealed. This is earnest cinema that may probe at cynicism but remains free from it.
Lumet and Rose make quick work to establish the personalities and conflicts that will duke it out over the running time. For some of these men, the trial was no more than an entertainment. The six days providing something interesting to break up the routine of their day job. Robert Webber’s Juror 12 feels lucky to have gotten a murder case, as assault or burglary trials “can be the dullest.” While on the other side of the table, Lee J. Cobb’s Juror 3 has immediate contempt for the entire proceeding proclaiming that he almost fell asleep on multiple occasions, and “Have you ever heard so much talk about nothing?” Standing pensive by the window is Henry Fonda’s Juror 8. He’s lost in thought, and the full weight of his potential verdict marks his face with dread.
Each juror brings their own prejudice into the courthouse. They can barely contain themselves, constantly hopping out of their seats, pacing, charging, raging their points of view at those that dare oppose them. Lee J. Cobb is obviously packing a lot of self-loathing towards his own failures as a parent when he condemns this kid. Ed Begley’s Juror 10 fights on behalf of his race, hostile from a lifetime of labeling others as “them.” Jack Klugman’s Juror 5 carries a chip on his shoulder from battling his way out from the slums, and if he could do it then so should have this wasted youth. Henry Fonda is there to represent our own (probably feeble) hopes that we could set our preconceived notions at the door. And of cours, it’s Henry Fonda, Tom Joad himself, the walking embodiment of every moral American.
12 Angry Men knows that our sacred institutions are teetering on the whims of humanity. Our righteous indignation is often less important than our own personal comfort, or the two baseball tickets burning a hole in our pockets. These jurors may be representative of our rights established in our cherished constitution, but they’re also just husbands who want to get back to their wives. They’re happy to participate in the community as long as it doesn’t take them away from their normalcy for longer than a week.
Fonda takes on the role of Defense Attorney because he recognizes the flaw in the system: the humans involved. The publicly appointed lawyer saw no flash, no sizzle to chomp on. The accused has known nothing but pain and misery in his life, and our culturally programmed notions of his worth are deadlier than any lethal injection. Justice is not an exact science; it’s a desperate conversation at war with our own prejudice constantly looking to obscure the truth.
The challenge is to put ourselves in the shoes of others. It may sound like a pandering lefty superlative you defiantly ignored as it passed from the lips of your doting parents, but it’s an essential act we all must work to cultivate. We owe each other the time. We spend so much of our lives constructing our pedestals to look down on others, we forget that we’re all connected by our very humanity. From that vantage point only justice can be reached.