These are not tolerant times. It takes no stretch of the imagination to picture a minority man being swiftly sentenced to death because his peers were too lazy or short-sighted or racist to view his case as anything more than a tabloid stereotype. It happens far too often in our Western seats of so-called justice.
It’s a cliché to say that 12 Angry Men is still as relevant today as upon its release in 1957, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. The most terrifying thing about the last few months in the USA is the blatant disregard for the rule of law that has built up over hundreds of years. The way powerful people have laughed in the face of tradition and protocol, and rewritten rules to suit their whims. If you change the rules, nobody has any choice but to play your game.
12 Angry Men begins with the simplest of scenarios. A man – a boy, really, only 18 – sits in the dock of a US court, accused of murder. Twelve of his peers – not yet angry, only men – must decide his guilt, and his fate.
At its core, 12 Angry Men is justice in motion. It’s everything that makes us a civilisation, not just a pack of animals, all dramatised in the most natural and beautiful way. It’s the battle between instinct and reason.
Ed Begley plays Juror #10, a man ruled by the former. At its most basic, his reliance on instinct is a belief in a natural order of things. He’s quite happy to wonder out loud why “anyone would believe this kid, knowing what he is.” “What he is” is both poor, and a minority. We’re never explicitly shown the defendant’s race, but it’s clear from the language Juror #10 uses that he isn’t white. In his most shameful moment he goes on an extended rant, raging: “You saw him! You know how these people live. It’s born in them! That’s the way they are by nature! They’re violent! I’ve known a couple who are OK, but they’re the exception.”
He is greeted by a wall of silence as his implicit racism becomes explicit. All the other jurors turn their backs and avert their eyes. His moment of weakness is the final damnation of his argument and the proof that none of it is built on real evidence, just irrational belief. He believes the boy is guilty because, to him, it’s just obvious. At one point he criticises another argument by claiming that “you’re like everyone else. You think too much, you get mixed up” – a familiar argument to many who’ve found themselves told that apparently experts and facts aren’t worth so much against someone’s belief that something is true.
In that sense, Henry Fonda as Juror #8 is the kind of hero we need in the current political climate. A man who refuses to be swayed by emotion or gut instincts, but instead is willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. A man who hesitates before doing something as extreme as taking another life. Fonda’s performance is saintly in its disinterested impartiality. As deliberations begin, he isn’t necessarily convinced of the defendant’s innocence, but he does have doubts as to his guilt, and he refuses to let these be crushed by mob rule. Instead of doing the easy thing and going with the herd, he takes a principled stand and saves an innocent life.
12 Angry Men strips humanity down to its most basic ingredients. Its simple sets, stark lighting and single location leave only the characters and their most human impulses. When instinct kicks in, people revert to self-preservation, judging others on what makes them different: their race and their class. Peer pressure and bullying are the first choice of tactics for most. It takes real effort and a lot of courage to stand up for ideals as lofty as justice when you’re faced with the reality of life. Because it’s not equal and it’s not perfect.
People judge others on their race and their poverty. Witnesses bend the truth out of loneliness and narcissism. Lawyers cut corners on cases they expect to lose. And nine times out of ten all of those flaws and imperfections that make us who we are would have sent an innocent man to the chair. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of 12 Angry Men is available now. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Emfoundation for providing a copy.