One of the benchmarks for art is it’s ability to remain relevant to changing times. Twelve Angry Men is one such film (at least, the 1957 version, I haven’t seen the remake.)
The premise: A murder has been committed. The victim: A man from the wrong side of the tracks. The accused: The victim’s 18 year old son, who was heard shouting at his father only hours before the murder. This… is not their story. Rather, this is the story of the twelve men who must convict or acquit the accused. Is there enough evidence to say with certainty that the man killed his father? If so, he will go to the chair. Is there doubt in their minds? They must let him free. Do they even feel the need to take the time to debate what seems to be an airtight case? After all, this is one of those people from that neighborhood.
As it turns out, only one juror, Number 8 (Henry Fonda), feels the need to say anything at all. But sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Twelve Angry Men is not a film about justice in the way we usually understand them. It doesn’t focus on the person who was wronged or the person who did the wronging. Rather, it sits down and takes a hard look at how we deal with both groups of people. It’s a film about truth and shades of gray, but at the same time it doesn’t say there is no truth but rather that we have to acknowledge both the truth and our difficulties in finding it by doing something we don’t like to talk about today – judging. Through out the film, the jurors carefully judge evidence, witnesses, the accused, the victim and even each other in order to arrive at their final verdict.
Many films (both today and even in the era of black and white) act as if there are only two groups of people in the world: People who see the world in black and white and look for right and wrong everywhere, and people who see the world as shades of gray with no right or wrong anywhere. Twelve Angry Men is a film about people who think there’s probably something like right and wrong, but have to deal with sifting through all the gray to get there. And the gray is more than just rather tenuous, morally questionable situations. This is real stuff.
What obscures justice isn’t contrived situations of philosophical arguments. It’s punishing heat. It’s grating people in the seat next to you. It’s a pair of tickets to the next big ballgame, which you’d rather be watching then being here (or really, most other places.) It’s personal prejudices, grudges or just a desire to see the immediate surroundings in harmony. It’s not like the jurors don’t think there’s a right or wrong, they just don’t see what it has to do with this situation here.
But in the end, a young man’s life hangs in the balance.
In the end, the integrity of twelve men rests on judging the case rightly. And, in turn, they will determine whether their society will do justice by that young man and his father, who is now dead and buried. When they leave that courthouse, there will be no cheering crowds, no newspaper headlines and, from the looks of things, no unshakable, life long friendships.
What there will be is a sense that justice might not be so far away after all.