12 Angry Men: Still Relevant and Riveting
by Becky Bye
As much as we hesitate to admit, classic movies and books about lawyers first exposed us to the legal profession, and perhaps helped shape our decision to pursue the practice of law. From To Kill a Mockingbird and Inherit the Wind to contemporary movies like My Cousin Vinny, scores of classic and popular movies focus on lawyers and the legal profession that often pursue a timeless message. One such movie is the original 1957 version of 12 Angry Men, which I agreed to review for The Docket.
Although practically all conversations about great legal movies always included 12 Angry Men, I never took the time to watch it. Perhaps it was because I was forewarned that nearly 90 of its 96-minute running time takes place inside a small jury room with consistent dialogue between the twelve main actors, for which the movie was named. Perhaps it was because it was in black and white with no special effects and music, and my Generation Y-self needed more color, special effects and complications. Perhaps I just never thought of it when the opportunity arose to rent a movie.
The movie’s cinematography starts by briefly showing what I believe symbolizes the epitome of a classic American courthouse — a vast, open staircase along a busy street attached to a building with grandiose, creamy columns that symbolize the magnificence of law. Inside the courthouse, the second floor overlooks an open, circular foyer. People hurry around, doing important things, ensuring justice is served within the cavernous building.
The next shot shows a courtroom and we hear a judge’s voice after attorneys finish closing arguments on a death penalty case. The judge begins speaking to the twelve male jurors, presenting clear instructions regarding their civic duty. He reminds them that this is a case for murder in the first degree and that premeditated murder is the most serious crime that exists. The judge reminds the jurors if they have "reasonable doubt," they must reach a verdict of not guilty, and that all men must agree to a verdict unanimously. Gravely, he adds that a death sentence is mandatory if the boy is found guilty. Before the next scene, the camera shows a relatively young boy with a deer-in-the-headlights look who knows that his life and destiny lie in the hands of the twelve men shuffling into a small room, men whom he does not even know, men who are not lawyers or experts on the matter.
The men shuffle into the deliberations room and start with a hand vote. Eleven immediately vote guilty, and Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) votes not guilty — to the others’ chagrin. The eleven men try to convince the juror otherwise, reminding him that this is an "open and shut case" and that they have to leave soon for Yankees games and other mundane life obligations. Juror #8 sticks by his principle and refuses to vote guilty, not because he thinks the boy did not do it, but because he is unsure whether the boy did. He reminds the rest of the jury that a "reasonable doubt" is all that they need to vote not guilty, and that the prosecution bears the burden to prove the case — not vice versa.
For the next hour, the movie exposes the jurors’ various backgrounds, social classes, and notably, biases. For example, one juror vehemently believes that the boy is guilty and almost derives pleasure from thinking of his capital punishment via electric chair. Later, the movie reveals that this very man has a poor relationship with his own son, and he intends to take out his frustration and anger vicariously on the boy charged with the crime. Another juror, the most senior juror, provides insight as to why an old man’s testimony might not be credible from his perspective as another old man. The jurors consist of bankers, advertising executives, architects, manual laborers, and other diverse professions. Bit by bit, each juror brings forth his background to thoughtfully consider the case, the witnesses, the facts, and the evidence. They all soon realize that it was not the open and shut case they assumed at the beginning of deliberations, and that their teamwork, discussions and backgrounds helped them come to a sound conclusion and a unanimous decision on the boy’s fate.
The last brief scene shows Juror # 8 casually descending the courthouse steps to the unassuming city. The older juror approaches him to briefly exchange names and concludes with "So long!" as they go their separate ways. Until that moment, the movie refrained from mentioning a single name, including that of "the boy" (the accused), the witnesses, the lawyers or the judges. Throughout the entire movie, these different characters were simply referenced as their role in the movie — lawyers, witnesses, "the boy" and jurors with their respective numbers — perhaps symbolizing that this was a story, transcending time, about constitutional rights, personal biases, context, and how jury deliberations should proceed to ensure justice in all criminal proceedings.
Because this movie took place in the late 1950s, the jury and judge consisted of primarily Caucasian men, save for one immigrant jury member who voiced how he immigrated to the United States because of its democracy. The accused was of different ethnicity than the jury, which comprised a large part of the plot. If this movie were to take place in the 21st century, the jury would undoubtedly consist of mixed genders, races, and ethnicities.
The only thing I regretted about the movie was not watching it sooner — particularly during the time when I was in law school studying criminal law, criminal procedure, and the moral theories and realities behind it. Nonetheless, I recommend all attorneys and other members of our society watch it because the movie provides insight to the purpose of the justice system and the burden on the prosecution to prove a defendant’s guilt, as prescribed by our Constitution, and does so without the frivolity and special effects of some modern-day films.