12 Angry Men - 1957
Director(s): Sidney Lumet
Writer(s): Reginald Rose
Cinematography by: Boris Kaufman
Editor(s): Carl Lerner
Cast: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber
Last week's film, West Side Story, gave me a brief snapshot of how Puerto Ricans were viewed back in 1961's Hollywood and for the most part, Hollywood is "in tune" with how society views a subject matter of the film. So, I wanted to find another instance where my culture was the center or one of the center themes of a film, and I quickly landed on 1957's 12 Angry Men. While they never say the ethnicity of the kid on trial, the fact that it takes place in New York, second home of Puerto Ricans, and a juror states that "they/them" are handy with switchblades (a negative stereotype of my culture), one can easily say the kid in question is Puerto Rican. After watching the film, I was beyond impressed at how engaging and thrilling a story that takes place entirely in a room could be. Let's talk about it.
The story starts at the end of a murder trial. The judge explains to the jury that if they return with a verdict of guilty, it means the death sentence for the accused. The jury is composed of 12 men, and all but one, Juror #8 (Fonda), believes that the accused is guilty. This vote of 11 v. 1 leads to hours of the men arguing over the facts of the case, and Juror #8 slowly breaking down everything he found troubling about the facts and the witness testimonies presented at the trial. As the room starts to shift towards favoring Juror #8, and prejudices, and racism begins to boil over in the reasoning of the men holding their ground on voting guilty. The genius of the script Reginald Rose wrote is that it never showed the trial, and all of the information the audience receives is given through the perspective of the jury members. This decision prevents the viewer from formulating their conclusions and rely on the characters to guide you through the facts.
Quick note: the editing choice by Carl Lerner when the film transitions from the court to the juror's room. We get a glimpse of the accused, and it fades to the room. The face of the accuse stays for a while over the table of the room, where his fate literally will be decided.
The seriousness of their decision highlighted by the judge is undercut by the nonchalant attitude many of them have when they are introduced and helps the audience see the inner working of the men we will spend the rest of the film with. One juror is worried about making it to the game, another fixated on talking about his marketing job, and one is more than comfortable is expressing his racism towards the kid he is sentencing to death. This introductions help will guide us, as an audience member, into adjusting how we accept their reasoning for voting guilty and how they viewed the case. We easily connect with Juror #8, not because he is trying to be a hero, but he is unsure, and when you are unsure, and the outcome is another man's life, you would reasonably want to talk it out, even if it is you against the entire room. He clearly says; "he could very well be guilty, I just don't know."
Quick note: It was a bitter pill to swallow hearing a couple of the jurors refer to the background of the kid, as "they/them." And saying that they are born liars, it is in their blood to commit a crime. But I do love the small ways they beat down the man that thinks highly of himself, and my favorite one is when he states "He is a common ignorant slob, he don't even speak good English." and is corrected by the juror with an accent; "He doesn't*, speak good English." Sixty-two years later, and that same person still exists in our society.
There is a lot of heavy lifting required by actors and Lumet as a director since the entire scope of the film is confined to one room. So, the action plays out as a theater play, with the actors commanding attention by standing up and walking around and the rest sit and listen. The camera work helps keep a sense of movement, so the conversation doesn't become stale, and blocking is used masterfully throughout the film further proving the attention Lumet had to the fact that spending an hour and a half inside four walls could be visually dull.
12 Angry Men is an incredibly captivating character study of the type of men during that decade. It tackles manhood, fatherhood, domestic violence, racism, prejudices, and duty to your fellow man all through conversation and arguments between men deciding to send a kid to his death. The acting across the board is fantastic, and how the facts are slowly explored and revealed keeps the audience engaged throughout the film. Go watch it.
12 Angry Men is Why I Love Movies.
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