12 Angry Men
dir. Sidney Lumet
scr. Reginald Rose
based on his teleplay
Commissioned by Steven Fishman
There is a quiet at the start of Sidney Lumet’s searing 12 Angry Men that seems appropriate. The trial is finished, the deliberations are about to start, and the judge has given the special instructions to the seated jurors. One by one, they file into a small juror’s room with no working air conditioner or fan, taking their seats, and then we’re off and running without any real preamble. There’s not an ounce of fat on this script, adapted by Reginald Rose from his own teleplay, and it’s a murderer’s row of terrific character actors, all of them hungry for the red meat the script offers up. Looking at them now, it’s amazing how many of these guys went on to huge, iconic careers, but in 1957, it was easier for these guys to all blend together.
All except Henry Fonda, of course.
Henry Fonda built his career as a movie star on a general foundation of decency, and the only notable exception to that gained enormous power from casting against it. In this film, Fonda is perfectly cast as the moral compass for this group of radically different types. He’s surrounded by some remarkable performers like E.G. Marshall, Robert Webber, Ed Begley, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, and Jack Warden, and there’s almost nothing to the film except these men sitting in a room and talking. There had been a live TV version of the play just three years earlier, with a pretty great cast and with a solid director, so at first glance, it might seem strange for Hollywood to turn around and make it again so quickly, so why do it? After all, movies were battling with TV at that point, and the entire point was to offer the theatrical audience something they couldn’t get at home.
At its heart, 12 Angry Men is one of the best films ever about how we see each other and why, and in 1957, it must have felt urgent to make a film that espoused such simple human decency. It was an era of change, and there was something building in America, a need to do something, to find some way to start to right wrongs that were already institutional by that point. What I find almost unbearably sad about the film is how it seems to be morally outraged by a point in society that I wish we could get back to from where we are now. Things were in need of some serious rethinking, but at least the issues seemed clearer-cut. Today, there is so much signal noise around every conversation about what’s right and what’s wrong that I’m not sure we’ll ever actually get around to fixing anything. In 1957, Sidney Lumet could be forgiven for thinking that his art might actually help make the world a better place.
There is something delicious about the idea that Henry Fonda’s kids were Easy Rider and Hanoi Jane, because if I had to pick actors who summed up what I think of as a quintessentially American ideal, Henry Fonda would be on that short list every single time. And I don’t mean it’s ironic or that I think they were any kind of negative response to who he was onscreen or off. I think it is entirely fitting that someone who was not only decent but thoughtfully, actively decent would raise kids who push back at the idea of what is American and what is moral at a given moment. You don’t have to agree with everything the kids did or even a single thing they did to see the value in having raised people who genuinely engage with the world around them instead of simply passively accepting it. Even John Wayne, as staunch a conservative as the industry ever turned out, was angry when people attacked Jane Fonda because he knew her as she was growing up, and he knew that her protests against Vietnam came from a genuine place.
12 Angry Men spotlights one of the things that our entire idea of American civilization is built on, something which we not only take for granted but actively view as a burden. I’ve never done jury duty. I’ve been summoned, but I’ve never been picked, and I’m actually bummed that it happened that way. I think it’s one of those things that every citizen should do, and lately, I’ve been thinking about citizenship and how little we seem to value it as actual citizens. Bring up jury duty to most people, and they’ll talk about how they’ve tried to get out of it. It’s such a normalized idea that it’s a joke as far as pop culture is concerned, like when Liz Lemon breaks out her Princess Leia outfit anytime she gets summoned on 30 Rock, that it almost seems weird to hear that someone actually did their jury duty. In Lumet’s film, we don’t get any sort of backstory about jury selection or how anyone ended up there. It’s a given that these men showed up to do their duty. They may want to get it over with as quickly as possible, but they’re there.
Right out of the gate, the men seem ready to find the young man on trial guilty. By a vote of eleven to one, they vote to convict, and that single act of defiance begins a heated debate that lasts a full 96 minutes. Part of my love of this movie comes from the perspective of a writer, because I am in awe of how easy Reginald Rose makes it look to drop 12 characters into one room for an hour and a half, debating some fairly heady ideas, never naming anyone but somehow making each of them feel like a fully realized person. My first produced work was in 1994, a play called Sticks and Stones. It was a one-act, running around a half-hour, about a cop who shot a boy in the line of duty. Witnesses heard him using racially charged language, though, and as a result, he’s looking for a lawyer to help defend him in what he’s sure is going to be at the very least a civil action, and possibly even criminal. Our entire play is just that first meeting between Sal Di Palma, the cop, and Alan Klein, the “good Jew lawyer” who Sal tries to hire. They end up battling over the words we use and the reasons behind the way we use them, and it was exciting to sit in a theater every night of that run, listening to people react to these full-force punches of dialogue back and forth. Part of the reason we wrote that play was because I had always admired the simplicity of this piece, and also because I loved the way this simple framework gave Lumet and his cast to talk about… well… everything.
I know that when we wrote Sticks and Stones, it came from a very immediate place. Living in Los Angeles at the time, it was impossible not to feel a sort of building racial animus in the city, especially between police and citizens. The Rodney King tape and the resulting riots in LA were terrifying, not because I thought I was going to get attacked or killed, but because of what it revealed about the condition of our city and the fragility of the peace here. That anger that erupted was earned, and our piece attempted to make some sense of it, admittedly from our very sheltered and privileged perspective. Think of what the major news stories were in 1957. Eisenhower and Nixon are the White House, Earl Warren is the Chief Justice, the Klan was on a tear in the South, and Ginsberg’s “Howl” was seized when it came through customs and declared obscene.
One of the key things happening was the burgeoning American Civil Rights Movement. In August, Senator Strom Thurmond, who was 147 years old at that point, set the record for the longest filibuster in US Senate history when he preached (and there was nothing else you can call that kind of oration) for 24 straight hours in order to try to defeat a civil rights bill. That is a startling display, as was the scene when the National Guard had to be rolled out to try to prevent nine black students from registering in the Little Rock Central High School, leading to the President having to roll out actual federal troops to force the National Guard to stand down. No matter that the Civil Rights Act of 1957 actually passed and went into effect; our country was determined to tear itself apart.
In the film, race is not the foremost issue being discussed by the men, but it is clearly the unspoken thing that underlines everything they’re talking about. The film is even careful to never directly refer to the race of the defendant, but there’s plenty of coded language here, and there’s a creeping malice to the way the conversation unfolds that is part of the brilliance of the piece. They take that early vote to see where they are, and the only holdout is Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda. He’s not digging in his heels and proclaiming the kid’s innocence, but he’s not ready to convict without a conversation about the case and the facts and the evidence. He wants to get to reasonable doubt before he makes any decisions at all, and almost immediately, he pisses off Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb), setting a tone for the way the rest of the film plays out.
What I find most compelling is the way the film shows a group of people come to an agreement about something as difficult as the guilt of another human being. Juror 8 starts from the least popular position in the room, and he slowly works on everyone in the room by simply asking questions. In my heart, I want to believe that this is who we truly are, that we can be reasonable and we can discuss things, and we can even have the hard conversations and still look each other in the eye. It’s hard, though, to retain that belief and not have it colored by cynicism over time. It’s oddly soothing to watch these men question and challenge each other over the course of the film, and there’s a real momentum to the way the argument builds. What it all boils down to is humanity, and the recognition of it in one another. Without that, we are lost, and 12 Angry Men forces these people to grapple with that in themselves. Lumet’s career largely dealt with people at moments of great moral crisis, and he loved people who look like normal people. That helped him communicate how common these moments were, and how these are not ideas that only affect certain types. These are the common things that make us all human, that unite us. When he cast E.G. Marshall or Ed Begley or Martin Balsam or Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, he was casting them precisely because they weren’t movie stars. Robert Webber’s probably the most conventionally movie-star-looking guy in the room, and he had a long, terrific career as a character guy. These were New York stage actors, guys who Hollywood didn’t have much use for (yet), and Lumet leaned into that.
One of the things that we take for granted about mass entertainment is the way it normalizes any experience. There was something private and mythic about what happened behind the closed doors of jury rooms, and unless you’d been through it, you didn’t really know what it entailed. At this point, thanks to the endless hours of television that have been devoted to every single facet of the legal system, we have a pretty firm understanding of it, and we’ve seen breakdowns of how things should work, how they fail, and we’ve seen it treated as drama, comedy, and frustrating human-level horror. Lumet’s treatment of the subject is still one of the most pure and direct versions of it I’ve ever seen, and there’s an honesty to the way the re-votes progress over the course of the day. It’s not just one big turning point. Instead, it’s a series of small conversations, points both related and unimportant, until it starts to add up to what can only be described as “reasonable doubt.” Juror 8 is there at the center of it, but it’s not like the film sets him up as the unassailable good guy with someone else as the indefensible bad guy.
Instead, there’s some truth to the way the film pushes some of the jurors to explore why they’re voting the way they’re voting. Instead of simply coming right out with some cartoonish racists, the film treats these people as characters, and the prejudice we hear from them is very real. My experience, as someone who grew up with extended family in Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee, is that racism is rarely simple and uncomplicated. It would be so much easier to grapple with if that were the case. Racism is instead a filter that is laid over everything that someone says and does, the way they approach things, they way they talk about other people, and the way they talk to them as well. My most direct long-term exposure to racism came in the form of my grandmother. She was a woman of many sharp corners and hard words, and kindness was expressed in odd ways by her. She lived in Memphis for most of my life, and every time I was with her, I would find myself quietly horrified by something. She would watch the news in the evening, and she would offer up a running commentary, largely consisting of guessing the race of the people who had committed the various crimes that were mentioned before they showed the people. She invariably guessed black, and she seemed delighted when she was right. She would grumble about people when they would leave the room, and she would cluck disapprovingly if the wrong person handled her food. She struggled with the language she could use around me without it erupting into a full-fledged fight, and her combination of the most disgusting and common term with a term that was considered correct a good 20 years before I was around resulted in her use of the word “nigra,” a skin-crawling substitute that never failed to make me wince.
The real failure I saw in her, though, came in the fear that made up so much of her world-view, and that fear was the root of every awful thing I ever heard her say. I don’t know what Memphis was like in the ‘40s or the ‘50s or the ‘60s, and I don’t know what she experienced growing up in rural Mississippi before that. But I do know that the fear that she tried to pass along to me was something I rejected completely, and that fear is something that runs through every scene of 12 Angry Men, a generational fear of whatever’s coming next. As our country wrestles with its own history of racial prejudice, and as we watch a reactionary demagogue in the White House stir anger and separation and fear into a potent cocktail that he uses to get his fanbase drunk, we pretend we can’t see any way to fix this. The truth is that we don’t want to fix it. We don’t want to do the hard work that these people do, sitting down and talking through every single point. There are conversations they have in this film that I wish I could have had with my grandmother, conversations about where these fears come from and why we see each other at a remove, and obviously, in the film, these are issues that you can resolve because you have the right words and because someone eventually listens with an open mind and an open heart, even if they’re reluctant to do so. In real life, that may not always be possible, but I’d like to think that reason and humanity win out over hate. We may want to do things quickly or easily like Jack Klugman, determined to make his Yankees game, but we eventually have to recognize that the hard work will take some real time, and we can’t rush through it.
Sidney Lumet’s work as a filmmaker is invisible but precise. He is a magician, even in this early work, juggling everything with a sure hand, never choosing the cheap sensation over the genuine expression of these ideas. His visual style is startlingly bold, but it doesn’t draw attention to itself. He uses the close-up carefully, building up a vocabulary over the course of the film as to when he’ll get close to someone and when he won’t. He saves the close-ups for the moments when he really wants us to get under someone’s skin, to see them wrestling with the core ideas of who they are. Because, ultimately, that’s what we do in those rooms. We put ourselves to the test, not the person on trial. We test ourselves to see if we’re able to set aside all of life’s disappointments and our personal prejudices and we see if we can look past whatever baggage the prosecution or the defense carries in, and we have to try to see these people as people. We have to try to see the truth of who they are because that’s the best way to know the truth of what they’ve done. If we can do that, and if the system really does work sometimes, then there’s hope for us. As long as those twelve angry men end up finding someplace where they can agree, there is a chance we can do that on a larger scale as well. It’s only when we stop talking and stop listening and stop trying at all that we are truly lost.