When most people think of jury drama, they think of Reginald Rose’s play 12 Angry Men. And when some people think of the play 12 Angry Men, they think of the 1957 movie of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet. High school English teachers pop this movie in because of the way it defines American justice, its message that facts aren’t always as black and white as they appear, and its Schooling Juror #10 Drinking Game.
The story is about a jury deciding on the guilt or innocence of an eighteen-year-old boy accused of killing his father. 8 is initially the only one who votes not guilty, despite the fact that the testimonies and presented evidence show otherwise. He pokes holes in the facts and argues that the evidence isn’t as conclusive as it seems, and the other jurors slowly but surely change their votes.
While critics love this movie for its cinematography, acting, and obsession with the phrase ‘reasonable doubt,’ I thought I’d focus on a different aspect of the story: 8’s influence on the other jurors.
Let’s start with 8 and the way he interacts with the other jurors. He walks into the jury room, quiet and contemplative, only speaking when spoken to. When he’s asked why he votes not guilty, his only response is “I don’t know.” He starts his case by appealing to the other jurors’ humanity and asking to show the boy compassion by discussing the case.
As the arguments unfold and we hear about the testimonies and evidence presented, we learn that 8—though quiet—is by no means a pushover. Whenever someone says “this is fact” to him, he nearly always has a way of saying “maybe to you, but I’d like to know more.” He challenges them to stand by what they say, especially when they’re not as sure as they think they are.
But while he isn’t a pushover, he also isn’t a victim of toxic masculinity like 3 or 10. When he realizes he’s outnumbered, he gambles for support instead of trying to power through on his own. He respectfully listens to the opinions of the others, even if he doesn’t agree with them. In fact, the only instances where he ignores the other jurors is whenever 10 exhales bigoted bullshit. And the only time you see 8 visibly angry is when he catches 3 and 12 playing tic tac to instead of focusing on the case.
Now let’s look at the other jurors. 1 is a passive guy, trying and failing to keep the peace between the others. 2 is a passive banker who is more used to agreeing rather than voicing his own opinions. 3 is—as 8 refers to him in the story—a “self-appointed public avenger” who wants to see the boy die. 4 is a smart, analytical broker who is also the strongest advocate for sticking to the facts. 5 is a quiet man who grew up in the slums. 6 also tries to keep the peace, but he won’t tolerate any of the jurors being silenced or treated as less than human. 7 doesn’t care about the case at all, always checking the time and impatient to get to a baseball game. 9 is the oldest of the group who could pass for an empathetic psychologist. 10 is a bigot who values his own opinion too much. 11 is a quiet European immigrant who isn’t afraid to ask questions. And 12, like 7, doesn’t take the case seriously and cracks jokes when he probably shouldn’t.
The first six jurors to vote not guilty are 8, 9, 5, 11, 2, and 6. Out of the five who change their votes, four of them start off as quiet, and whenever they speak up they’re either insulted or not taken seriously by the other jurors. They’re treated as though their opinions don’t matter in the grand scheme of things (and if 6’s line “I’m not used to supposing” is anything to go by, they probably believe that they don’t matter). But as soon as they change their votes, they become strong advocates for the boy’s acquittal. In comparison, the majority of the other six (1, 3, 4, 7, 10, and 12) start out being loud, aggressive, and in some cases obnoxious. But by the time they change their votes, they don’t speak up as much—almost as if they’re humbled by being proven wrong.
What does this say about these two sides of the coin? Watch the film again and focus on how 8 interacts with everyone else—and how they respond to him. Again, 8 listens to everyone else and what they have to say. But he also asks questions. When talking to jurors like 2, 5, 9, and 11 in particular, it’s like he’s saying to them “your opinion does matter.” And when speaking to jurors like 3, 7, 10, and 12, it’s like he’s saying to them “your opinion is not the only one that matters.” With all of that said, maybe this movie was about more than just criminal justice. Maybe it also showed how kindness can empower the powerless and simultaneously humble the arrogant.
Photo source: http://screenprism.com/insights/article/how-does-12-angry-men-use-cinematography-to-build-tension-during-the-film