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What does “12 Angry Men” say about democracy and American civic duty?

What is justice? Is the American legal system set up to encourage it? Will there always be flaws in any system thanks to the prejudices of the people it represents? How does it feel to be one standing against many? 12 Angry Men (1957) is a love letter to the American judicial system that equally points out the faults in the people that system protects and serves. It is also a film born in tandem with the origins of the civil rights movement, after the pandemonium of McCarthyism, in a time shadowed by the fear of nuclear war.

Above all, the film is about a worldview. Screenwriter Reginald Rose saw American society as crumbling amongst itself, and 12 Angry Men stands as a warning to Americans: remember your responsibilities, stay unified, and be understanding with one another, or the nation will fall. By the end, the film is not about whether or not the accused man was guilty or innocent—it’s about whether or not these 12 diverse men with individual prejudices and personalities can figure out how to work together and come to a decision.

The film cleverly uses no names, instead referring to each of the 12 men as their juror numbers and to the accused as such or with iterations of “the boy” or “the defendant.” Even the witnesses share the same ambiguous labeling. That anonymity makes the film applicable to anyone in America. It’s clearly set in New York but could just as easily be anywhere else; it could be anyone on trial and any American in the jury chambers. The men and the situation are to represent anywhere in America, making the film a poignant social commentary on the country at large.

Each character in the film wants justice for the crime. As the narrative progresses and Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), the original lone vote for a not guilty verdict, presents information that dissolves testimony made in the courtroom, the individual definitions of justice start to appear. Each man wants justice as they see it, and Juror #8 seeks to remind them their individual desires don’t matter. They hold another person’s life in their hands. The passions and failings of each man are presented distinctly, and a sense of every character as an individual variation on the emblem of the American man takes form.

One American History blogger notes, “This film becomes a public service announcement of sorts in reminding the public that our democratic system renders someone innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and the civic responsibilities of American citizens should be taken seriously as a right and an honor of being a member of that democratic society.”

We see men who want to convict simply because the accused is a minority. Another wants to convict so he can get out of the courthouse and go see a Yankees game. A few jurors play Tic Tac Toe while Juror #8 is trying to open an important dialogue about shaky testimony. And one is getting over a flu, rendering him disinterested in discussion, especially in a sweltering hot room. This is not the design of democracy, and the film offers the point that if people treat the judicial process with such indifference and lack of seriousness, it becomes a pointless system. As an entry in the blossoming civil rights movement, the film beautifully condemns the jurors’ notion to convict based on nothing more than the race and societal class of the accused. While such thinking is still a problem today, it was blatantly rampant in the court system at the time. The film is also a work of post-McCarthyism, and the jurors’ instincts to unfairly convict recalls the very recent history of the McCarthy era. Many American artists and intellectuals were judged as Communists during the HUAC trials, often with little evidence and frequently by association. The accused boy in12 Angry Men reminds us of these proceedings, as his initially unquestioned guilt is revealed to be based on circumstance and testimony that couldn’t be true.

12 Angry Men is naturalistic and characteristically American. A verdict is never shown to be rendered on the accused: once the men in the room all transition to a not guilty stance, the film ends, and the men go about their lives. Watching Jurors #8 and #9 (Joseph Sweeney) shake hands and introduce their real names outside the building in the film’s final shot reveals to us what 12 Angry Men is really about: people overcoming themselves as individuals and working together toward a common duty that benefits society at large. This is the foundation of the American justice system. Our collective sense of civic duty is the key to a functioning rule of law within the society.