September Issue 2019

By | Cinema | Published 4 weeks ago

Set almost entirely in a small, practically claustrophobic, New York City jury room, Sidney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama follows 12, white, middle-aged, middle-class men as they deliberate on a seemingly open-and-shut murder case. An exploration of the justice system and the principle of reasonable doubt, the film dives into the 12 men’s, and by extension society’s, deep-rooted prejudices, biases, fears and differences as they struggle to come to a unanimous decision about giving a young Puerto Rican boy the death sentence for killing his father.

At a time when representation is the name of the game, and when audiences and critics alike dismiss movies that do not have diverse characters, 12 Angry Men manages to hold its own. Partly because the seemingly similar men all have different origin stories and distinct personalities, but perhaps even more so because 62 years after the film was first made, it is still white, middle-aged, middle-class men who continue to remain in decision-making positions.

When the film first begins, all the jurors with the exception of one are convinced that the young boy is guilty, but it is Juror 8’s (Henry Fonda) reasonable doubt that forces the rest of the men to reconsider their decisions. Details of the case, and evidential inconsistences are revealed in flashbacks as the 12 men review the case again.

In theory, 12 Angry Men does not seem like the kind of film that will work, and despite the three Oscar nominations it received, the box office numbers were a disaster. But in the years since, it has been hailed as one of the best films ever made, is taught in film schools around the world and is considered a master class in acting and direction.

For a courtroom drama based around a murder trial, the film sees almost no ‘action.’ The conflict plays out subtly through the disagreements among the jurors as their body language changes and personal prejudices come into the picture. Naturally there are exaggerations in the movie; even in the ’50s, an entirely male jury was mostly unheard of; some of the jurors would be dismissed from duty for their blatant bias, and someone would remind Juror 8 that his job was not to go solve the case on his own but decide on the basis of facts and evidence made available to him. Nonetheless, the story remains gripping. What works best for 12 Angry Men is the cinematography. Shot mostly at eye level, without any razzle dazzle, it gives one the illusion that the events in the film are unfolding in real time, creating a sense of urgency, as if one’s looking away from the screen even for a moment would change the course of the film.

What began as an 11-1 vote, shifts through the course of the movie but as the jurors finally get up to leave the room, it is never revealed what they finally agreed upon. Up until the final moments, the film never allows the viewer to relax. A man’s life is on the line, and the audience feels every bit the weight of the situation as do the 12 men stuck together in the small New York City jury room.