New, Old Movie Review: ‘12 Angry Men’ (1957)

This classic is an important movie for parents to watch with their children for many reasons.

’12 Angry Men’

Many centuries ago, Aristotle explained that truth is the mind’s conformity with reality. Defining it is simple; it’s practicing truth that can prove difficult. On a social scale, truth can prove uncomfortable, especially in a world that sometimes demands nonconformity with the most basic of realities. On a personal scale, truth can be obstructed by the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others. 

Nature seeks truth, but nurture is another matter. Nurture — or the failure to properly nurture — can create prejudices and false biases. And these can not only blind us to truth, but wreak havoc on those around us. This is a vital lesson, and I’ve rarely seen it illustrated better than in 1957’s 12 Angry Men.

Though the film broadly fits into the courtroom trial genre, it begins with a twist: we don’t see the trial at all. The story begins at the point where a somnambulant judge is giving instructions to the jury. The bored judge explains that this is a murder trial and that a guilty verdict carries a mandatory death sentence with no chance for clemency. After that, the jury of 12 men walk into a private room to begin the proceedings. Although the jurors don’t realize it at first, each of these 12 men is about to find himself on trial.

Within just a few minutes, they take an early ballot. Eleven men vote “Guilty.” One man, portrayed by Henry Fonda, votes “Not guilty.”

One juror is particularly annoyed at Fonda’s vote, and doesn’t mind telling him: “Boy, oh boy! There’s always one!”

The jury foreman is polite but condescending: “Perhaps if the gentleman down there who is disagreeing with us … perhaps you could tell us why. You know, let us know what you’re thinking and we might be able to show you where you’re mixed up.”

As each man takes his turn explaining why he voted guilty, it becomes clear that some are afflicted by a blinding bias or outright racism. Outraged that Fonda’s character has had the temerity to suggest that the accused teenager might be innocent, one juror launches into a tirade: “You’re not gonna tell me we’re supposed to believe this kid, knowing what he is. Listen, I’ve lived among them all my life. You can’t believe a word they say. You know that. I mean, they’re born liars.”

The operative word in this sentence is “THEM.” But THEM does not just refer to race for all of the jurors. For some jurors, THEM is poor people; for others, THEM is foreigners, or old people or teenagers or tough kids. We progressively discover that, for one juror, THEM is his own son.

Somewhere in his past, Fonda’s character might have had a THEM, but not by the time we are introduced to him in the jury room. He’s grown sick of the tragic hatred of rash judgment toward others. Fonda fires back to a fellow juror: “I’d like to ask you something. You don’t believe the boy’s story. How come you believe the woman’s? She’s one of THEM too, isn’t she?”

As the story progresses, Fonda implores the jurors that what is considered rock-solid evidence might be only built on sand. The question is whether some of the jurors’ biases will allow them to question what they desperately want to believe.

One of the great geniuses of the movie is that some jurors are not motivated by hatred or even dislike; rather, they are simply attempting to find the truth. They discover that truth can be hard to find, even if you are making a sincere effort to find it. There is a moment in which E. G. Marshall’s stockbroker character sees the truth, and rises above his pride to embrace that truth. Every time I watch that scene, I get a lump in my throat.

The movie also contains a powerful message of forgiveness to one’s enemies. You and I need to hear that message. Years ago, I confessed to my spiritual advisor that I like arguing. He assured me that arguing, per se, is not sinful. Arguing is not necessarily unjust or uncharitable (although those vices can often arise). But he also gave me a piece of advice that I’ve always tried to remember and employ: After the argument, make sure you part as friends. This movie reminds me of my spiritual advisor’s counsel. It’s one I have taught my own children, having watched the movie with all of them. When they’re arguing, I often say, in reference to the film: “Help the old man put his jacket back on.” You will understand what I mean after watching the movie.

I first watched this movie with my dad on a lazy summer afternoon when I was a young teenager. After I saw the first few minutes, I was convinced it would be boring. By the time the ending credits rolled, I was fascinated by the legal system. Since then, I’ve seen the movie at least 30 times. In fact, I try to watch the movie every year to remind myself of the importance of seeking truth — especially difficult truths I’d rather not see.

This is an important movie for parents to watch with their children for many reasons, but perhaps most of all to illustrate the devastating nature of racism.

There is a narrative that everyone in America is racist; there is a competing narrative that no one is racist. We should object to both narratives because both are wrong. The first view is despairing, as though there is no escape from hatred. But the truth is that God grants us both the free will and the grace to rise above racism — which makes it all the more troubling when one refuses to accept that grace.

But it is absurd — dangerously absurd — to claim that no one is racist. Over the years, I’ve heard my share of racism against various ethnicities. I didn’t hear much racism against Mexicans growing up, but such racism has certainly come into vogue, largely through the broken window of politics. In recent years, I’ve heard friends and associates make demeaning comments to me about Mexicans, which only seem to subside when I inform them that my wife is ancestrally Mexican — and thus, so are my children. Thus, I appreciate this movie on a very personal level.

We parents do not have the luxury of raising our children in an honest world. But you and I can be — we must be — personal examples of both truth and charity. And being that example must entail this: a moral outrage when dishonesty and racism and THEM-ism are championed. Viewing 12 Angry Men with our families can be part of that process.

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