If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t spoil it here — watch it first, then come back.
“12 Angry Men” is a classic film that gets played in schools, universities and is referenced in articles regarding argument, the death penalty, our justice system, and/or race and class.
Part of its fame is rooted in the setting — it’s a simple but incredibly engaging film, mostly set in a single room as 12 jurors debate the innocence or guilt of an 18-year-old boy accused of murdering his own father. They all know a guilty verdict will bring the death penalty. At the film’s opening, 11 of the jurors insist on the boy’s guilt while one man questions whether or not there really was zero reasonable doubt — and if there is any level of reasonable doubt, then they are supposed to vote not guilty. The ensuing debate lasts the entirety of the movie.
Each of the “12 Angry Men” have a different approach. You have the one who hates the kid simply because of where he grew up, and how violence is “born in them.” You have the working man, the guy who grew up and out of the slums, the old, observant, wise man, the man with anger issues stemming from his family, the salesman who could really care less, the pragmatic juror of logic and facts — and of course, the level-headed juror who is driven by both his head and his heart. These personalities are all clashing, and most fall back and forth from one side to the other: guilty or not guilty.
Just as it’s about how people argue among one another, it also brings up many questions — not only about our own justice system, but the ability for men to judge other men at all. However, these things are discussed in length in other articles.
One point that surfaced during my previous run-around with the film struck me as oddly relevant to today (most well-crafted stories speak to human nature, not the time or politics in which they were made). Many of the arguments, especially the ones that lasted until the end, were essentially rooted in emotion. This was especially true with the ones who shouted “but look at the facts!” over and over, louder and louder. Ironically, the compassionate, hesitant figure turned out to be the most logical one. His heart had more logic instilled in it than the heads of others.
But of course, each one thinks the other guy is the one driven by emotion, and that they are the ones using sound logic. The protagonist of “12 Angry Men” had the one essential quality that no one else in the room possessed at first — the ability to doubt and critically assess ones-self.
Something else caught my attention in today’s political climate. The stock broker — a logical, pragmatic man — holds out quite a bit until the end. He insists that the boy is guilty of murder. However, unlike some of the other “guilty” verdict jurors, he is honestly concerned with the truth. He realizes that, when the emotional, racist or angry jurors (that are on his side) start talking, they are making his whole case look bad. He tells them to shut up multiple times.
This is another quality that seems to be in short supply now (or perhaps it’s always been) — we are so concerned with beating the other side, that we often take any supporters we can get. We often refuse to acknowledge and condemn those who align ourselves with our views, no matter what their accompanying beliefs are. It’s as if we just want more people on our team, whoever they may be.
In the same spirit, one juror just switches his verdict vote from guilty to not-guilty, simply because he wants the whole thing to be done and over with. A juror concerned with truth chastises him. He tells him to vote based on what he believes to be right, not what is convenient. This is a man who has just gained a “supporter” for his “side,” and yet he chastises the newcomer for being disingenuous. You don’t see that often in political debate these days.
In “12 Angry Men,” the jurors illustrate the necessity of holding your own “side” accountable. When I think of those who share my political views, I ought to be more critical of them than anyone else. After all, they represent me and I represent them, so we should be arguing among ourselves just as much as we argue among those who disagree with us.
What the film comes down to is this: the men in the room — for all their various reasons — change their minds. It could be argued that a couple do it out of laziness or just to go with the popular vote at the time, but the minds are changed. And for the most part, it’s an honest change. How do they do it? Sure, they possess the ability to logically deduce some things, and they must be flexible enough to eventually change their minds. But those things come after one important quality that, deep down, they must possess in order to change their position. They must be able to look at themselves critically (which doesn’t mean patting themselves on the back for getting it right the first time).
In a world that is constantly pointing the finger and arguing, when was the last time you took a critical look at your own beliefs?
Featured image: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images — © 2013 Silver Screen Collection via IMDB. Other photos gathered from IMDB.