How 12 Angry Men (1957) puts prejudice in the dock

Black metal fence in deep shadow.

Sidney Lumet’s classic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men takes bigotry to task – but does the film live up to its own standards?

When a working-class teenager is accused of killing his father, he seems unquestionably guilty. The jurors think so, too – all except for the man in the white suit. Now it’s up to him to persuade the others to think twice about sending the boy to the electric chair.

Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, is a tightly scripted mix of courtroom drama and whodunnit; it flips repeatedly between cool logic and simmering tension. Memorably, the film takes place in a single room, and plays out in real time.

Despite its age and social distance, the film’s themes – of calling out prejudice and lazy discrimination – remain very relevant.

Who are the 12 angry men?

The 12 angry men of the title are the jury. But while the tensions bubbling under the surface create the film’s mesmerising dramatic tension, it’s really about ONE angry man in particular: juror #3.

We have to call him juror #3 because the film doesn’t name any of its characters. At the very end we hear the surnames of two of them (Davis and McCardle, who are jurors #8 and #9). The rest of the time, we only get to know the men through their emotions and job titles.

The only other identification the men have are their juror numbers. This makes for an interesting parallel with criminal gangs. Compare how the gang in Reservoir Dogs use nicknames to hide their true identities (and how they burst through regardless, exactly as they do in this film).

As far as the story goes, this is the jury:

  1. The foreman, who is a sports coach at a high school
  2. The nice guy who wants to be liked by everyone
  3. Angry Dad: the film’s main antagonist (Lee J. Cobb)
  4. The stock broker who never sweats
  5. The doctor who grew up in the slums (Quincy’s Jack Klugman)
  6. A working-class Joe – he’s a painter by trade
  7. The salesman who just wants to catch a ballgame (Jack Warden)
  8. The man in the white suit – an architect, and the film’s protagonist (Henry Fonda)
  9. The old man – retired
  10. The bigot with a cold. He owns a string of garages
  11. The European immigrant – a well-mannered watchmaker
  12. The fast-talking ad man

“Prejudice always obscures the truth”

Juror #8

A storm about to break

Lumet works hard to keep the plot as taut as possible. He has to, because everything takes place in a single room with a limited cast of characters (keep in mind that Reginald Rose first wrote this as a television play).

The audience has a couple of things to worry about. Firstly, there’s the murder. A teenager is accused of killing his father in cold blood, an event described in gruesome detail.

With the boy now facing the death penalty, his fate is another source of tension. We have to weigh up the evidence and make up our minds, just as the jury does.

The jury room is another source of tension. There’s an all-male jury, with several aggressive, ‘alpha’ characters battling for dominance. On top of this, the door is locked, creating a stifling, claustrophobic feel.

The weather mimics these tensions. It’s one of the hottest days of the year – a real punishment in a locked room with no working air conditioner. When the storm breaks it mirrors the emotions overflowing inside the room.

But the real source of the film’s conflict is the antagonism between the characters, and specifically juror #3’s rage.

Initially, the men judge the defendant through their own prejudices and lived experience. And juror #3, who steers much of the in-fighting isn’t judging the boy at all. He’s playing out his own failed relationship with his son.

The jurors are the ones in the dock

“Slums are breeding grounds … the kids who crawl out of these places are real trash”

Juror #10

In 12 Angry Men, the murder plot is a device to bring the main drama to the stage. The jurors are judging a working class kid. But we’re judging the jurors.

Specifically, the film turns the lens on prejudice, racial discrimination, anger, and apathy.

  • Juror #3 – Angry Dad – is notably aggressive, yet the source of his rage is internal frustration and heartbreak.
  • Juror #7 – the salesman – represents lazy racism. More than this, however, is his lack of character. He doesn’t care if the boy is guilty (and is put to death). He only cares about making the ballgame on time.
  • Juror #10 is a bigot with despicable views. It’s only when the others ‘cancel’ him (they no-platform him by turning away from his hate speech) that he starts to think about what he’s saying.

The film shows us the consequences of these character tropes: they’re personally and socially damaging. Then juror #8 gives them (and the audience / society) the chance to do the right thing.

Juror #8 and the white suit

Fonda’s juror #8 appears to wear all-white, a choice that links him to other heroes in cinema and popular culture [however, it’s important to point out that this is a kind of historical colourism – the implication of white as ‘good’ and black or dark colours as innately ‘wrong’].

Juror #8 stands out. Unlike the others, he doesn’t gossip or waste words. He’s quiet, thoughtful and serious. #8 alone has a doubt about the boy’s guilt. But that doesn’t mean he’s certain the boy is innocent. He explains:

“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.”

Juror #8 is everything Angry Dad isn’t. He’s patient and slow to anger and, in his white suit, seems almost saintly. I think this is intentional. Fonda plays the ‘Jesus character’ – one who serves to provide redemption to the others.

Once they see the light, they (mostly) take up his cause to preach to the others. And it’s a potent message. The film would have us believe that discussion, democracy and fair-mindedness is enough to dismantle hate and discrimination.

In reality, it’s rarely that easy (compare Detective Somerset in Seven). However, keep in mind that, for all the film’s preaching about discrimination, there are no women and no Black jurors.

In fact, the omissions speak volumes. Henry Fonda may represent the ultimate noble-minded human, yet the film is bound by the flaws of its era.

How #8 converts the others

The film has to work hard against the confines of its single room location. One of the ways it does this is in varying the way the jury votes each time (each time #8 wins over more votes):

  • They raise their hands (11:1 – in favour of guilty)
  • A secret written ballot (10:2)
  • The doctor verbally changes his mind (9:3)
  • They raise their hands. This time the watchmaker speaks out (8:4)
  • The men call out their votes (6:6)
  • The salesman changes his vote out of petulance (5:7 – not guilty)
  • Another show of hands (3:9)
  • The ad man changes his mind (4:8)
  • Juror #8 asks each man how he votes (1:11)
  • Angry Dad breaks down and declares he votes not guilty.

Re-examining the evidence

Each switch in votes follows an examination and discussion of the evidence. Juror #8 leads on this, showing how the trial’s assumptions don’t hold water.

  • If they accept that the woman across the street saw the murder through the train windows, they have to accept it was too noisy for the man in the apartment below to have heard the argument.
  • The man in the apartment below has a limp; he couldn’t have made it to the door in time to see the defendant running away.
  • The knife isn’t as rare as they’ve all assumed (because of their prejudice and privilege). In fact, #8 has bought an identical knife.
  • They discuss how likely it is for the boy to shout about killing his father. Later Angry Dad uses a very similar phrase – “I’ll kill him!” – aimed at #8, proving that words can’t always be taken literally.
  • Juror #4 claims the boy is lying about being at the movies but can’t himself remember details about a movie he’s seen. This is the first time we see #4 sweat.
  • The doctor explains how switch blades are used, casting doubt on the boy being able to stab his (taller) father.
  • They realise the woman across the hall wears glasses, so may not have seen the stabbing in the way she testified.

Bit by bit, the case against the boy falls into doubt. That disintegration underlines the weight of the death penalty, and all its flaws.

It’s a film about men, boys and maturity

The man in the white suit leads the other jurors to the path of righteousness and right thinking. More than this, he saves the life of a young man – one who’s been kicked around and abused all his life.

Fathers and sons appear throughout the film in various guises. There’s the dead dad and the boy on trial. There’s also Angry Dad and the son he’s pushed away (thanks to his equally toxic take on masculinity and manhood). The other jurors also talk about bringing up children and teaching them right from wrong.

Juror #9, the old man, talks about the sadness of growing old, too. He says old men are considered unimportant and invisible. He’s talking about one of the key witnesses, but he also means himself.

There are only male characters on screen, including the defendant and the judge. And much of the film’s tension arises from the pecking order they put themselves into, from alpha men to jokers.

But, like anger (and the prejudice it gives rise too), they can’t contain their true personalities. One by one, we get a glimpse of the characters hidden beneath the surface. And some are better men than others.

12 Angry Men (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet

What to read or watch next
  • A Few Good Men (courtroom drama)
  • The Crucible (alternative take on courtroom drama)
  • The Runaway Jury (courtroom drama with a focus on the jury)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (courtroom drama, race)
  • The Firm (the law Vs moral character)
  • Falling Down (heat as a metaphor, anger, justice)
  • The Staircase (the limitations of the legal process)

Picture credit: Tim Hüfner