What comes to mind if someone were to ask you what movies formed your childhood? This is an interesting question to ponder and many children have many kinds of experiences.
Our family was not a huge movie-going family growing up but we did enjoy our movies at home. I was not personally a big movie watcher but there are some movies that are now part of my favorite-movies-of-all-time list. One of those movies is the film, 12 Angry Men (1957).
I am not sure how old I was when I first watched it but this may be the movie that created in me an avid lover of “courtroom drama” movies. I watched this movie recently with Caiti who is a big movie-buff herself but had not seen it before (she had seen the play). So, of course, we added it to our old-school-Netlfix queue and watched it when it arrived.
The reason I choose to reflect on this movie is not only because it is one of my favorite films of all time but because of it’s depth. It speaks to ancient truths about the nature of man and in some ways was a movie ahead of it’s time. This movie has much to offer the observant film viewer and also the interested thinker. It is crafted superbly with great arguments over evidence, incredible dialogue, wonderful characters you love and hate, and important issues we all care about. To the movie!
The movie stars the excellent Henry Fonda but is also well-acted by all the supporting roles. It is a wonderfully crafted film and touches on so much. I will try to draw out some of those things here.
The movie opens in a courtroom with a jury about to dismiss. The face of a nameless teenage boy watches them and fades as we enter the jury room. The movie is all about the decision the jury makes on this case. This young man from the rough side of town is accused of killing his father with a knife. The trial has just finished and the jury must make a decision.
It begins with taking a vote to see where the jurors stand and all but one votes guilty. Henry Fonda’s character (Juror #8) votes not guilty. They all ask him why, and his response is that he doesn’t believe you should decide a boy’s fate in 15 minutes. He wants to discuss some of the points of the case.
The rest of the movie we see Fonda debate and sway the rest of the men that the case given by the prosecutor has holes. There are enough holes that it should leave room for reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt.
After a lot of yelling, voting, arguing, intriguing analysis of facts, compelling dialogue and the challenging of motives the jury votes not-guilty and the movie ends.
My reflection will be about what we learn about people, specifically angry men, from this movie. The nature of man is on display. We learn through strong polarized examples about good and evil, prejudice, understanding, truth-seeking, persuasion, and the difficult pursuit of justice.
Perspective & Prejudice
This film does at tremendous job of bringing in the experiences and lives of the jurors into the jury room. This reflects reality in that we all have experiences that shape how we view people and events around us. A few minutes into the movie we are introduced to one of the main opponents in the movie. It is Juror #3. Through smart dialogue the movie sets up for his character what will be his driving motivation he has for seeing this case decided in the “guilty” verdict. It is understated at first but it becomes clearer and clearer as the movie moves forward. This first set of lines highlights the key experiences that frame his perspective. Watch the clip below at about 40 seconds into the clip.
Other characters come to the fore with their own perspectives that contribute for good and ill to the pursuit of justice. After we learn more about Juror #3, and his belligerence, we are introduced to a new character. Juror #9 comes forward during a key vote with his own perspective and spirit coming through.
Perspective. It comes from the very fact of our existence. None of us are truly objective. None of us are omniscient. We all see the world around us impacted by a million-and-one factors.
12 Angry Men is a study of how those perspectives come through in some of the most important discussions and debates we can have. The film also sets out to show that unless we have others around us, helping us see our bias’, prejudices, presuppositions, and pride we will not be able to see accurately the truth staring us right int the face.
Pride, False Strength, and Utter Weakness
This movie features 12 angry men, obviously. We may think we will learn more about the accused boy in the coming hour and a half. But that is not true. What we find is that we need know ourselves. These 12 men are going on a journey to learn more about themselves. To see the truth about themselves so they can better see the world around them. 12 Angry Men is about self-discovering the truth of our own hearts. Our own weakness, anger, grudges, and the frailties we all carry. These men will soon learn about them. I encourage you to watch and think about what each juror learned about themselves. I cannot possible go into that now but it would be a fruitful task.
Anger is where I will focus here. What do we learn from all of the anger? What we find underneath the anger is a variety of things. Many of the men get angry over justifiable reasons because what is said to them is blatantly offensive. The normal and right response to evil words or unjust treatment is anger. (What we do with that anger is a whole other series of posts) Besides anger rooted in offense we find anger rooted in something else, pride.
Juror #7 features a pride of indifference. He sees the life of this boy as rather insignificant compared to the inconvenience of a trial interfering with his opportunity to go to a baseball game. Juror #10 shows the most obvious pride in his judgmental attitudes toward those that grew up in the slums. In fact, this socio-economic and racial pride is so offensive the whole jury ignores him as an act of rebuke. A powerful scene (shown below). This character though, exemplifies something many of the characters struggle with, which is pride.
False-strength is also featured in this film. Juror #3 is an example of this. He bullies people. He berates them and belittles them. He acts like he is the smartest guy in the room. He boldly roars about how weak everyone else is showing sympathy toward this boy. But behind the bluster, belligerence, and anger is weakness. He is a hurt man. He is hurt by his son. He is haunted by his own mistakes. He has no relief from brokenness of his own life.
Watching the movie you see that Juror #3 incites the most anger in you and in the other jurors. Yet, at the end of the movie he invokes the most sympathy. In a powerful scene after he finally cedes his vote we see a broken man haunted by his own mistakes.
Angry men often project strength where no true strength exists. The broken foundations of a broken man are often disguised in bullying, bluster, pride, and anger. Relationships and a personal life dominated by verbal bullying and confident tirades over all who know them are often disguising true brokenness.
True strength is not measured by physical domination, verbal domination, witty quips, degrading speech, tearing others down, and destruction. True strength is not measured by angry statements of self-justification or blame-shifting. True strength is measured in godly character, humility, sacrificial love, and the courage to stand for truth and justice.
12 Angry Men highlights weakness disguised in supposed strength. But, the movie also highlights a contrasting strength. Fonda’s character, Juror #8, illustrates well true personal strength. Juror #8 in between breaks treats others kindly and with respect. He is not quick to raise his voice in anger but is firm in what he thinks is important. Juror #8 does not hate his opponents, he only seeks to achieve the goal of justice. A man is a whole person. We see in Juror #8, not a man seeking stardom or attention, but one seeking justice. The whole movie Juror #8 is acting out his own personal strength of character.
In a moving final scene, we see Juror #8, make a loving gesture. After Juror #3 collapses, finally seeing himself for what he really is, they all go to give the Judge their verdict. After seeing everyone else file out, there remained only Juror #8 and a broken, distraught Juror #3. Fonda’s character gets the man’s jacket and helps him put it on. He waits to walk out with him, his supposed enemy. It is a great display of understanding, kindness, and a person who is not characterized by anger. That is true strength. The strength to understand others. The strength to treat them better than they deserve.
In God’s strength I strive toward this goal. Too often I see Juror #3 come out more than Juror #8. I pray that I continue to learn that true strength is in knowing God, obeying God, and gaining godly character through the power of the Holy Spirit. Godly character is true, humble, just, kind, sacrificial and faithful. We see glimpses of these things in this great film. More importantly, we see how people promote injustice in their own thinking. We see how people are skewed, warped, full of prejudice. We see how some people don’t care and are self-centered. We see pride and arrogance. We must know that about ourselves. We must have the courage the face the terrible fact that we are fractured and broken. Sinners in need of a Savior.
Why is the human condition this way? Why does humanity produce such ugly and vile qualities? It is the result of rebellion against God.
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” – Romans 1:28-31 (NIV)
Our only hope is found in Christ’s work on the cross and the resurrection power to live in newness of life in Christ. Only in Christ can you have right relationship with God leading to courageous godliness that interacts with the world in the ways we were made to.
“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” – Colossians 1:21-23 (ESV)
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” – Romans 6:5-7