Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt: 12 Angry Men and the true nature of justice

The opening shot of 12 Angry Men shows us the towering pillars of an unnamed court building. At the top of this building, we see a quote from George Washington: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

When Sydney Lumet’s debut feature was released 60 years ago in 1957, it’s safe to say he and many Americans may have felt those words to be hollow. What was justice to the hundreds of black men being lynched across the nation? Although “separate but equal” facilities had been outlawed three years earlier, the justice system surely didn’t feel like a safe, reliable institution to many African-Americans and other minorities whose wounds were as fresh as their memories.

Today, we have the world at our fingertips. We were promised technology would erase these divisions, these wounds. That scientific progress would necessitate a moral shift. Anyone who spends time on the internet would quickly find such a promise to be unfulfilled.

What’s so astonishing about this classic courtroom drama is that it speaks so clearly to the current state of public discourse and justice in the United States, just as it did 60 years ago.

The film’s set up is simple: a jury of 12 men is tasked with deciding whether to send a Puerto Rican teenager to the electric chair for murdering his father, or declare him not guilty of the crime. Eleven of the men are immediately prepared to declare him guilty, but one abstains. Juror number 8, played by Henry Fonda, offers up a simple request: “I just want to talk.” Number 8 reminds the other jurors that the point of justice is to prove culpability beyond a shadow of a doubt. We have no doubts, the other men say. And yet, over the next few hours, he slowly and methodically convinces every single one of them to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and in fact are relying more on their own prejudices and preconceptions than any objective view of the facts.

Of course, none of the other men are aware of this. In their mind, the evidence is clear. But the jury deliberation room is sweltering, and they all have lives to get back to, after all.

This past election cycle, I was reminded of how entrenched most Americans are. We have our own news channels, our own friend group and our own community gatherings. We have a hard time putting ourselves in others’ shoes because we don’t know what an “other” looks like, what he thinks and feels and believes. Our opinions validate us, and so we fear changing them, even when the facts would otherwise compel us to consider a different perspective.

According to the film, that’s a damn shame. Many of the other jurors are, perhaps understandably, upset at #8’s insistence on having a discussion. Doesn’t he see what’s staring him right in the face? His main opposition is juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), an emotional man who nonetheless proclaims a firm commitment to the facts. What about the multiple eyewitnesses? The boy’s flimsy alibi? The physical evidence, such as the unique knife found at the scene? How can you go against such overwhelming evidence?

The answer, according to juror 8, is simply to ask questions. “We’re talking about someone’s life here,” he says. “We can’t just decide it in 5 minutes. Supposing we’re wrong.”

12 Angry Men reminds us that true justice is impeded as long as we refuse to question our assumptions or admit that we might be wrong.

In post-truth America, “wrong” might as well be a swear word. We’re taught that if we feel a certain way about something, than it must be true. But…what if.

“I don’t have personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about the facts,” juror 3 says, as if doing so were even possible. Our emotions often make true impartiality impossible.

One of the things that makes 12 Angry Men so memorable is the fact that there are no villains. The men who most vehemently oppose juror 8 aren’t monsters, they’re simply doing what they feel is right. But right and wrong should never be determined by how we feel about something.

This is driven home in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, when juror 10 (Ed Begley) loses himself in a racist rant about “those people” who live in the slums.

“Violence—that’s their nature,” he says. “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”

Slowly, each man stands up and turns his back to juror 10, as he continues to fumble for words. Even in an environment where everyone has a voice, not all viewpoints deserve equal treatment. The look on juror 10’s face as he realizes how deeply entrenched his prejudice has become and how blind it has made him is a true acting feat, and it’s the moment that sways the stubborn man’s verdict. He knows now that the things he believes in the shadows, spoken out, are heinous and underserving of acknowledgement.

How do we treat the racists we encounter, the people who refer to African-Americans as “thugs” or even make causal jokes about Asian drivers? Thanks to the internet, the Alex Joneses and David Dukes of the world have a platform to speak their controversial opinions. But we often acknowledge these thoughts by trolling them on Twitter, by reacting against them in force. Like the jurors in the film, I wonder if protesting such hate speech would be more effective if we simply stayed silent, a universal sign that some opinions are not valid and will not be acknowledged as such.

“Wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth,” Juror 8 says towards the end of the film. And, in this room full of average, relatable, well-meaning men, we certainly see plenty of that adage in action. My initial reaction to that quote is to remind the juror that prejudice is everywhere, and that’s why the “true administration of justice” is so hard. We are not, by nature, factually driven, rational animals. We are not Spock.

But, I can hear the juror responding, we don’t have to be. True justice begins to peek between the curtains of blind hatred and prejudice when we take the simple step of acknowledging that we might be wrong. This isn’t a decision someone else can make for us. And, in an age of Twitter flame wars and internet trolls, it’s not an easy one to stand by. But to do otherwise is to risk our own humanity.

Sixty years later, I pray there is still time to take the lessons these 12 Angry Men have learned to heart.

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