Wednesday, July 15, 2020

13 Angry Men

One of the silver linings about home quarantining is the opportunity to catch up on well-regarded films that I missed along the way. Last month I looked at a couple of 100 Best All-Time Movies lists (there are a gob of them—you know what they say, opinions are like bellybuttons: everybody has one), noting which I'd seen and which I'd missed.

Through the miracle of Netflix, I am simply working down the list and adding to my queue all the films I haven't seen (or didn't recall having seen, which amounts to the same thing). Last week I got a CD in the mail of the 1957 classic, Twelve Angry Men.

The entire movie is the jury room deliberation following a murder trial. The film opens with a bored judge giving instructions to the jury. The trial has ended and viewers have no idea what has occurred. A young man (early 20s?) is on trial and if the jury finds him guilty there is a mandatory death sentence. The decision must be unanimous. None of the jurors know each other ahead of time, or have any relationship to the defendant, the judge, or the lawyers.

The defendant is an immigrant and lives in low-cost tenement housing.

(The cast is terrific, including Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb, E G Marshall, and Jack Klugman.)

This movie was released 63 years ago and times have changed—though not enough when it comes to prejudice and racism. The first thing that caught my attention is that all of the jurors are white and all of them are male. 

We are told that the defendant was represented by a court-appointed attorney who was less than zealous in his efforts to protect his client's rights, which illuminates the issue of how much justice is available to folks who cannot afford high-priced legal help. In the movie, the character played by Henry Fonda takes up asking the questions that the defense lawyer never did—not because he's convinced of the defendant's innocence, but because he's not convinced of his guilt. Slowly, over the course of several hours, he's able to cast enough doubt on the veracity of eyewitness testimony and how to interpret the "facts," that the jury swings all the way from 11 siding with the prosecution to a unanimous decision to acquit. It's fascinating to watch the progression.

What stood out most for me about Fonda's character was his ability to withstand a steady diet of pressure from others ("we could have gone home two hours ago if you'd voted guilty at the outset") without losing his core concern for "reasonable doubt," and his steadfast ability to resist responding in kind when being railed at by others. It was rare courage.

• One juror is impatient to reach a guilty verdict so as not to miss a baseball game that he has tickets to that evening. 

• Another juror is afraid of the responsibility. He frequently makes jokes in an awkward attempt to lighten the mood, and simply votes with the majority.

• The oldest member of the jury offers important insight into why the retired man who claimed to have seen the murder might have made up his testimony—for a final chance to be taken seriously in a culture that warehouses its seniors, and pushes them to the side.

• The juror portrayed by E G Marshall is a paragon of rationality who is invariably contained and grim. He insists that the defendant must be found guilty because a woman testified that she saw him commit the murder from the window of her bedroom 60 feet away—until it's pointed out that she wears glasses and claimed to have seen the murder after being awakened from a sound sleep. As the juror also wears glasses, he realizes the improbability of the woman having her glasses on for her observation, and he changes his vote to not guilty.

• The juror played by Lee J Cobb is the last holdout, until he admits that his upset with the defendant is a misplaced projection of his estranged relationship with his son—who is the same age as the defendant. Breaking down in tears, he agrees to acquit.

• The juror who serves as foreman is constantly trying to figure out how the group wants to proceed (should we talk or vote; should votes by open or secret ballot?) and is regularly disrespected by the others. (When process is unclear it can be a thankless job to be responsible for it.)

The movie is full of racist innuendo (everybody knows that dirty immigrants can't be trusted), and mass confusion about what to do with strong feelings, which, not surprisingly, abound in a murder trial.

On the one hand, it's inspiring to realize how far we've come since 1957. There would certainly be women on the jury today, and (hopefully) a racial and ethnic mix as well. Yet it's also sobering to see how little we've advanced when it comes to clear communication, and how much the defendant's fate depended on that chance that someone as skilled and resolute as Henry Fonda's character was on the jury.

In general, I strongly question whether people of color are receiving any more justice today than they were 63 years ago, and that realization effectively makes me the 13th angry man.


Susan said...

Hi Laird,
Suggest that you watch Just Mercy and the many talks and interviews on You Tube by Bryan Stevenson. Things are changing veeeery verrrrry slooowly.

Mel Rivera said...

Very creative post.