Wednesday, July 13, 2011

12 Angry Men (1957)

     The headlines have once again inspired today’s movie here on “Reel Christianity”. All I’ve been hearing the past week or so are two words: Casey Anthony. She’s been on trial for murdering her infant daughter, and as far as I understand, she’s been acquitted. And all this talk about the courtroom, acquittal, and uncomfortable jurors made me think about one of my favorite movies ever: “12 Angry Men”. I remember seeing this film at the beginning of high school, but it took me a couple years to realize how incredible it is. The way “12 Angry Men” is written—and the play, for that matter—every word that comes out of the characters’ mouths reflects who each man is. You’d have to really see it for yourself to understand. But within the film, there’s still a theme of prejudice and putting it aside to make a life-altering decision.

     Henry Fonda plays one of the jurors, an architect named Davis, otherwise known as Juror Number Eight. I think I’ll be calling him “Eight” in this review. At the end of a week, he and eleven other jurors are deciding on the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of murdering his father. Eleven say he is guilty: Eight says he’s not sure. He tells the jury, “It’s not easy to me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” So he starts going through all the evidence and starts considering every option. As you can imagine, none of the other jurors like this. Seven has tickets to a baseball game that night and is determined to leave the case so he can get to the game on time. Ten, who apparently grew up in a poorer community like where the boy on trial was from, stereotypes “slum kids” and puts the defendant in that category as well—even forsaking all the evidence. And Three has prejudice of his own. In an early scene where the jurors go around their table stating their opinions, Three says: “I have no personal feelings about this; I just want to talk about facts.” As he says this, he pulls out his wallet and looks at a picture. The picture is hidden from the camera’s view, but we find out later that it is a picture of Three’s thirty-two-year-old son, who he had a fight with many years ago and whom he hasn’t seen for two years.

     But several of the jurors start putting prejudices aside in order to figure out whether or not the boy is guilty of his father’s murder. The second man to claim the boy innocent, even though he is not sure either but would like to hear more evidence, is Nine, an old man who knows how Eight feels to “stand alone against the ridicule of others”. After more evidence comes out that was at first thought to be clear but is now in question after the jurors discuss it, a few more jurors start agreeing that the boy should be acquitted. Now, this doesn’t mean that they all think the boy is perfectly innocent; it just means that they think there is enough evidence in question to say that there is a possibility that the boy could be innocent. At one point, when nine of the twelve jurors are in favor of acquittal, Ten stands up and starts yelling, marginalizing “slum kids” using words like “they” and “these people”. But within two minutes of constant yelling, almost every juror has left the table and starts standing around the room with their backs to Ten. Ten realizes he’s said quite enough, and he sits away from the rest of the jurors while they all come back to the table. This is where Eight tells them quietly:

EIGHT: It's always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. Wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don't really know what the truth is; I don't suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent. We're just gambling on probabilities; we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don't know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that's something that's very valuable in our system: no jury can declare a man guilty unless it's sure.

     I apologize for quoting the Sermon on the Mount again; I guess it’s been on my mind lately. But in Matthew 7, Jesus tells the crowds not to judge others. “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (7:2) And that’s a lesson that Juror Ten needs to realize. For a long time, he’s put poorer kids into a group without thinking, and he needs to give up his prejudice in order to send a boy to the electric chair without thinking. And at times, he’s also judged in the same way that he judges: when the jurors are talking about the boy and how he may have escaped the scene of the crime, Eight says he wouldn’t have shouted at his father, because he’s too bright to give himself away like that, Ten responds with: “Bright? He’s a common, ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English!” Eleven, who is a European immigrant, corrects him: “He doesn’t even speak good English.”

     Three also has a hard time giving up his prejudice. At the end of the film, every juror except for him declares the boy innocent. But Three won’t be convinced. At one point, he pulls out his wallet and throws it on the table, saying, “I tell you, I’ve got all the facts here! That’s it! That’s the whole case!” The rest of the jury can now see for sure that Three has let his personal feelings get in the way of the case. Three gets so angry, he tears up the picture, then immediately starts weeping in regret. And out come two words: “Not guilty.” I’ve read the play as well, and the ending is slightly different (personally, I like the film’s ending better), but in both works, Three puts his prejudice aside by the end.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find opportunities to love everyone you meet today and this week, putting away any prejudice you may have.

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