12 Angry Men

The next movie on my 2007 AFI top 100 movie is 12 Angry Men.  When other bloggers saw that this was up next, many made comments that it was a great movie, but that it would make me mad.  I knew that this movie would upset me and not just because it is a thought-provoking movie.  Several years ago I sat on a jury in Boston.  It was a juvenile case.  The defendant was 12 or 13 and poor.  He was charged with armed robbery.  Here’s the story, a group of boys approached another child in his driveway.  One had a BB gun that looked real, hence the armed robbery bit.  The owner of the gun showed it to the boy by lifting his shirt to reveal that he had it tucked in his pants and demanded that the victim give them his motorbike.  Several members of this group were convicted.  The defendant in this trial was charged since he was friends with the group of boys who held up the boy with the motorbike.  The boy who was held up couldn’t remember all who was involved since he was terrified.  In the trial I witnessed, the victim was not able to identify the defendant.  The prosecution did not have any fingerprints.  The only evidence they provided was that he was friends with the group that was already convicted.  If I remember correctly, the other convicted boys had left behind evidence, including fingerprints and they were in possession of the bike.  The defendant’s attorney did not provide any witnesses and didn’t provide any defense at all.  As soon as the prosecution rested, he rested his case.  It took half a day.

As it turned out, I was one of two alternates on the jury.  The two of us were sent to a separate room while the jury members deliberated.  As soon as I entered the room the other gal stated that she thought he was not guilty since there was no evidence. I readily agreed.  We both didn’t know if he was innocent, but we believed that there were no facts to convict.  The prosecution did not prove its case.   The jury took over two hours to make a decision.  I didn’t hear the verdict until I was back in the courtroom.  My jaw hit the floor when I heard the word: guilty.  I couldn’t believe it.  Then I found out that one person did not want to render a guilty verdict.  However, another member of the jury convinced the rest of the group that since the defendant didn’t have shoelaces in his shoes that he was already in jail for another crime so he must be guilty of this crime as well.  This was not entered as proof during the trial, it was simply this man’s observation during the proceedings.  The woman who did not want to convict gave in and during the reading of the verdict she was in tears.   Also I found out that the judge kept sending someone to the room to ask if they were done yet.  It was after 5pm when the verdict was given.  Afterwards, while the bailiff was escorting us out of the courtroom he said, “I didn’t think they proved he was guilty.  But so you know, he’s been charged with another crime so I think it is okay you convicted him on this one.”

Did I mention that the victim was a white boy and the defendant was black?  I never thought I would witness this in my lifetime.  It really shocked me and made me angry.  When I left the courtroom that cold winter night the temperature was below zero.  However, I ended up walking quite a bit on the way home to help clear my head.  This was not how I thought the American jury system worked in the 21st century.

Now the movie.  The movie 12 Angry Men was released in 1957 and it received critical praise.  Yet it was a disappointment at the box office.  Some think this was because color movies were the rage and this movie is in black and white.  It was nominated for three academy awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing of Adapted Screenplay.  It lost in all three categories to the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is number 36 on the top 100 list.  However, when it started to air on television it garnered an audience.  In the United Kingdom, the movie was the second most watched film in secondary schools in 2011.  The 1976 British musical Bugsy Malone was number one.

The film takes place mostly in the jury room while 12 men deliberate if a man should be found guilty or acquitted of murder.  The defendant is from the slums and is accused of murdering his own father.   The issue is reasonable doubt.  Can all 12 men say that without a doubt the man is guilty?  All of them have to agree one way or the other.  When they cast their first vote, Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only one who votes not guilty.  When asked why he voted this way, he says that since a man’s life is riding on the decision he believes that the jurors should talk about the case before deciding.  This angers several of the jurors, especially Juror Number 7 (Jack Warden) since he has tickets to the baseball game that night.

As the men talk through the evidence several prejudices arise.  At one point Juror Number 10 says the following about people from the slums, “They get drunk… oh, they’re real big drinkers, all of ’em – you know that – and bang: someone’s lyin’ in the gutter. Oh, nobody’s blaming them for it. That’s the way they are! By nature! You know what I mean? VIOLENT!” To add to the tension, they are deliberating on one of the hottest days of the year.  The temperature not only rises outside but inside the jury room.  One of my favorite lines of the movies is uttered by Juror Number 9, “ I don’t think the kind of boy he is has anything to do with it. The facts are supposed to determine the case.”  However, this logic is counter by Juror Number 3 who says, “Don’t give me that.  I’m sick and tired of facts. You can twist ‘em anyway you like, you know what I mean?”

While I watched this film I kept thinking of the time when I was in the jury box.  From what I experienced, this movie is an accurate depiction of what it is like being on a jury.  The writing is absolutely superb and the acting is phenomenal.  Even the moments when no one is talking I could feel the tension in the room.  I have always loved courtroom dramas and I have to say that this is one of the best ones I have seen.  I will warn you though, it will make you think and it might make you angry.

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American who's recently returned to the US after a seven-year stint in the UK and Ireland. When she isn't writing, she's traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs in New England, or reading. Not necessarily in that order. Her novels have hit Amazon bestseller lists for lesbian fiction and lesbian romance. She cohosts the Lesbians Who Write Podcast (lesbianswhowrite.com) with Clare Lydon. TB also runs I Heart Lesfic (iheartlesfic.com), a place for authors and fans of lesfic to come together to celebrate lesbian fiction.
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41 Responses to 12 Angry Men

  1. Kat says:

    I watched this in high school and the movie stuck to me. Whenever I see any major court case of TV I always think back to this movie and what it’s like to be in a jury. I’ve never been on one and your recount of jury duty touched me. The system is flawed, no doubt about that. Anyway, you’ve inspired me to watch that again. It’s been a few years.

    • TBM says:

      This movie will stick with me too, especially now after my experience. I’m glad you want to watch it again. I think this movie would be useful to watch from time to time to remind us to see the whole story and not what we perceive. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Kristina says:

    Oh I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I want to wacth it! Charlie said it’s really good! 🙂

  3. Novroz says:

    Ow wow!! to be honest, I am more interested in reading your experience than the review…sorry.
    That was such an unforgettable moment,it must be hard being in that position. Poor kid.

    It always makes me wonder,how do they select the jury?

    • TBM says:

      It was frustrating for me since I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know I was an alternate until after we heard all the evidence and we were getting ready to discuss if he was guilty or not. They put all of our names in a device and spun it around and pulled out two names. That is how they decide on who the alternates will be.

      As for the actual jury selection, they send out notices to citizens stating that you have to be at a certain court on a certain day. When you show up, you wait in a room to see if there will be any cases that actually go to trial. I sat in the room for half a day waiting. Then finally they called 25 of us into a courtroom for the jury selection. The lawyers decide who they will accept on the jury. They ask if you know anyone involved in the case, if you have any prejudices, if you have ever been a victim of a similar crime, and a couple of other questions that I can’t remember. Juries can be really random since you don’t actually know who will show up for duty (even though it is required, some people skip) and they don’t know a lot about you. I had a feeling they made choices based on how we presented ourselves in court.

      I feel for the kid. I don’t know if he was innocent, but this is a horrible introduction to the legal system as such a young age.

      • Novroz says:

        how bout your work? .. you know if the case takes days.

        My country’s law isn’t great as well. we are now in uproar toward a woman who used drug and drove a car that ended up killing 9 children, she was said to be convicted for 6 years. 6 years for 9 lives?? can you believe that?

      • TBM says:

        I was there for two days. Your employer can’t say that you can’t go since it is a civic duty. But they don’t have to pay you either for the days you are gone. If I remember correctly, my employer still paid me. They do ask on the forms if sitting on a jury would cause you any suffering, such as missing too much work or you have a vacation planned or something along those lines. Fortunately, my case was short. Another trial that day was a murder trial that was predicted to take at least two weeks.

        I hadn’t heard of that case…she killed 9 children. That is horrible. The poor families. And only six years…I don’t even know what to say about that.

  4. Caroline says:

    What an experience. How mad I would have been.
    I think I’d like to watch the movie. I hadn’t heard of it.
    I’m fascinated by courtroom dramas.

    • TBM says:

      I was very angry, but mostly sad. The poor kid didn’t have a chance. And if he is innocent, what does he think of the system and the law now.

      This courtroom drama shows the other side that you rarely see in movies or in television series. I recommend it!

  5. T.F.Walsh says:

    Haven’t seen this movie, but now I want to 🙂

  6. The Hook says:

    Fantastic, powerful film to add to your list. Juries are sort of ridiculous when you factor in the emotions that effect most verdicts. Lawyers have to be convincing actors as well as advocates of supposed justice.

    • TBM says:

      It is a shame that something that should be so straightforward can turn into a circus. The drama of the situation takes over and facts get lost.

  7. Hi TBM, I was just wondering – are foreign films part of your list? After reading your story about your own experience as a member of the jury and your thoughts about this film, it kind of reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon – which I often use for film-viewing among my students who are learning about the reality of ‘disparate truths’ and multiple realities/dimensions of truths and falsehoods. I have a feeling you’d like it. You might want to check it out and let me know how you find it.

    • TBM says:

      Thanks for the tip! I have recently joined a group that is watching movies from around the world and I will add this film to my list. This sounds like a movie I would really enjoy! I’ll be sure if I can track down a copy to review it.

  8. What a terrible experience you had in the jury box. I wish that kind of thing was a rare event.
    Have never seen the movie, but your review makes me want to view it.

  9. Grace says:

    That’s so sad. It’s frustrating to know that this sort of thing still happens.

    As far as 12 Angry Men, I watched a recent-ish Russian adaptation that was fantastic. It focused on Russian xenophobia by using a defendant from Chechnya.

  10. Dounia says:

    Great post. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. I read the play in highschool and it really stuck with me. The movie is an excellent representation of the play, and the acting is truly superb. I also saw the play in French – the actors were amazing, and the translation was almost word for word.

    Your time as a juror must have been quite an experience; it’s terrible to think of that poor boy, if he was put away for a crime he did not commit…

    • TBM says:

      Thanks Dounia! I would love to see a stage production of this play since I think it would be powerful.

      My experience was eye-opening unfortunately. I do feel for the boy and his family. I don’t know what sentence he received and I hope the experience doesn’t leave him bitter. But that is a lot to ask since it would make me mad if it happened to me.

  11. Adam says:

    12 Angry Men is an excellent movie, and it’s kind of strange how well it relates to your case of serving on a jury (albeit in the opposite direction).

    I believe it was on one of the special features of my dvd edition where a commenter about the movie said that the biggest problem with our legal system is that most people do not understand the concept of “reasonable doubt.” And I agree, if you don’t know much about the law, it’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around. I almost think there should be some sort of test to see how well you understand the concept before you’re allowed on a jury, some of the people on the case you described obviously didn’t.

    • TBM says:

      That is interesting Adam. It can be a difficult concept in some cases. Also I think a lot of people forget that it is up to the prosecution to prove without a doubt that the defendant is guilty–that everyone is innocent until proven otherwise. Maybe the judge should spend more time when instructing the jury about their obligations to define reasonable doubt and the facts they can consider when making the decision. We were never told why the defendant wasn’t wearing shoelaces…it shouldn’t have been discussed as proof of his guilt.

  12. Kate Kresse says:

    12 Angry Men is an excellent film and terrific look at the judicial system. The judicial process must be kept as pure as is humanly possible. The film should be shown in HS civics classes, and the process should be discussed passionately.

    • TBM says:

      I agree Kate. I was surprised that this film is shown in many British schools and yet when I was in school in America it wasn’t shown at any of my schools. This film is an excellent introduction to the American judicial system and the responsibility of citizens.

  13. Fergiemoto says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but what a shocking experience you had.

  14. uncoolghoul says:

    I remember the one and only time I watched that movie, I was on a Henry Fonda kick after reading and watching The Grapes of Wrath. I completely agree with you, you can feel the tension amongst the jury. It’s been at least ten years since I watched this and I can remember the anger, the heat and sweat adding to the tense situation. Good movie, and it has left it’s mark–so many television shows since then have had a 12 angry men episode, in which a main character changes the minds of a jury who just wants to vote guilty and go home based on circumstantial evidence.

    • TBM says:

      Henry Fonda was a great actor. That is pretty cool that after ten years you can still remember the tension of the film. To me that means that it is a well-made movie that resonates with the audience. Now that you mention it, television shows do mimic this plot. I didn’t make that connection. Thanks!

  15. In New York, it is now almost impossible to get out of Jury Duty – you can get deferred but unless you are a nursing mother or a full time caretaker you have to show up – which is a good thing. The real problem is that poor defendants get lawyers like the one your guy had. Our public defenders are overworked (in NYC they average 50 clients at a time) and the judges are under orders to clear their courtrooms as quickly as possible.

    • TBM says:

      Boston is the same way. I wasn’t living there that long when they found me. And almost everyone I knew had been summoned at least once. When you do fulfill your duty they won’t call you for three years, but once that time is up, more than likely you will get another letter.

      I really felt for the kid’s family. His public defender didn’t look like he was involved in the trial at all. I know the system causes some of these problems, too many clients, too many cases, and pressure to clear the docket. But it would be nice if the judge and public defender could act like they were doing their job and cared about a fair trial. I didn’t get that sense from my experience.

  16. niasunset says:

    Yes, I agree with you dear TBM, it is one of the best one! I watched several times in my life, and I can watch again if I can find it. You can almost feel yourself in this courtroom… You want to invole as one of them… So impressive, and unforgetable… Thank you dear TBM, it was a nice writing and review, with my love, nia

    • TBM says:

      This was my first viewing of the movie, but I have a feeling that it won’t be my last. Like you said, it is unforgettable. Thanks for your kind comment.

  17. hugmamma says:

    Twelve Angry Men is one of my all time favorite classics. I never tire of seeing it…not that I watch it often. But when I do, it’s as though it’s for the first time. The characters and the details of the drama are riveting. The nuances are intriguing and plentiful.

    hugs for reminding me about this great drama… 🙂

    • TBM says:

      I wish I watched this movie earlier in my life since it is so fantastic. It really is an amazing film to watch…the acting, writing, and drama are great.

  18. Jackie Cangro says:

    Amazing how your jury experience parallels the movie in a lot of eerie ways.
    I’m teaching a creative writing class and I’m planning to use this movie as an example of great dialogue and how to make each character unique. I think these qualities make this movie excellent from a craft perspective.
    In the scene you mentioned, when juror # 10 shows his bias about people from the slums, I think the other jurors get up and turn away from him to face the wall. What a powerful act of defiance with no props or even leaving the room!

    • TBM says:

      It is a brilliant scene. One by one they turn their backs on him and the gentleman realizes he is alone. This movie has such powerful writing that you barely notice these little things since it all just flows.

      Good luck with your creative writing course!

  19. Pingback: In the Heat of the Night | 50 Year Project

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