The politics of '12 Angry Men' has never really left us and probably never will
When I’m not analyzing the subtext of the latest pop culture offerings, on most days I get to interact with people from all walks of life, dealing with all sorts of situations. I meet people with children who in one way or another face a life of hardship, and I sometimes get lost in thought about the unfairness of it all. Seeing babies in a hospital nursery, some born into this world with serious medical adversities on day one, I start thinking about the things most people take for granted for which those children may never experience, and all because somehow someway they lost a random chance lottery game with nature. Things as simple as walking, living to be a teenager, having a first kiss, going to prom, or ultimately being able to live as a self-sufficient individual in control of their own destiny may be beyond their capabilities.
It’s not fair, and the longer I think about it the angrier I get.
Once in a late-night, drunken conversation I told a girlfriend about these feelings, and while she agreed the overall situations were tragic, she thought my perspective was flawed. For her, to view these lives as being “broken” in some way is to assign a value which considers them less than normal, when the love and relationships these individuals bring to the world is different but just as significant as any other. Getting angry over what has been possibly lost is to discount the flesh and blood reality of the present. I’m still not sure I totally agree with her, but the entire conversation made me realize how in any given situation, even the ones we think are cut and dry, our views are filtered through a lens of emotional baggage which can either angry at an imperfect world in which bad things can happen, or can find hope in the worst of circumstances.
Sydney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is considered by many to be one of the best films ever made, parodied endlessly as the definitive representation of pop culture depictions of the jury system, and used in many schools to teach principles as they relate to government, the application of law, and principles of American justice. The action of the 1957 film, adapted from a teleplay written by Reginald Rose, occurs in the tension-filled conversations which occur mostly in one room; a jury room where the life of a young boy accused of murdering his father hangs in the balance. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) stands alone in questioning the boy’s guilt, and slowly, methodically begins swaying the jury with arguments which appeal to reason, compassion, and common sense.
In the decades since the film was released, there have been arguments over whether the jury’s ultimate decision was the right one, and the true theme of the story. Is it a tale about how an individual can make a difference in the world? Is it a story about the flawed ways we try to achieve fairness? Both are legitimate ways to look at the movie, but watching it again this weekend what struck me about 12 Angry Men is how it’s really a story of perspectives, and the ways those perspectives color reason.
But, most of all, I found the timeless quality of the movie funny in how the different perspectives in the film still describes the views of huge swaths of the electorate here in 2018.