Henry Fonda was one of our greatest actors. Born in Grand Island, Nebraska, Fonda was a star in Hollywood and on Broadway. He made great movies: Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Roberts. But he served as producer on one film only: 1957’s 12 Angry Men, the best movie ever made about a jury – even though the film isn’t necessarily reflective of how juries actually work or are actually supposed to work.
The movie details the deliberations of a jury trying to come up with a verdict in a murder case where a young man (probably a teenager) is accused of killing his abusive father. The jurors know that a guilty verdict will mean a death sentence for the defendant. After being instructed by the judge, the jurors retire to the cramped confines of the jury room. A preliminary vote is taken: eleven “guilty”, one “not guilty.” The majority immediately turn on Juror #8 (Fonda) and badger him about his vote. Asked why he insists on discussing the case when the others think the defendant’s guilt is obvious, Juror #8 replies: “Well, there were eleven votes for guilty. It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” And from there, Juror #8 begins to do exactly that.
The movie is extremely claustrophobic in its setting, and the director, Sidney Lumet changed the focal length of his camera lenses as the movie went along to increase that feeling. Except for the opening and closing scenes (about three minutes total), the entire film takes place in the jury room or the tiny washroom attached to it. None of the jurors are ever named until the end of the movie; in fact, in any cast list you can find, they are identified only as “Juror #1”, Juror #2”, etc. The cast is fabulous: in addition to Fonda you have such excellent actors as Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, and E.G. Marshall, and supporting actors you will recognize from many other roles: Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Robert Webber, Ed Binns, Martin Balsam.
12 Angry Men, like many ensemble movies, uses its characters as archetypes, which the lack of names emphasizes. There’s The Truth Seeking Honest Man (Juror #8), The Arrogant Guy with Money (Juror #4), The Wise Old Man (Juror #9), The Immigrant Who Understands Citizenship (Juror #11), etc. There’s also The Bigot (Juror #10) and The Psychotic (Juror #3). (With regard to the last two, any trial lawyer will wonder how these two got through voir dire? Please. Who got thrown off the panel instead of these guys? Attila the Hun? Voldemort?)
Because of the setting, this isn’t a very “movie” movie. In fact, in a reverse of what we see today, where TV shows regularly are turned into movies, this movie was originally a live TV drama. And it was anachronistic even for 1957. A jury without any women on it? And the jury does things during its deliberations that would result in a reversal if any of them came out during an appeal. (If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll avoid spoilers here.) And it’s shot in black and white. Believe me, none of that matters when you watch it.
12 Angry Men is a movie every trial lawyer needs to see. We can argue about how accurately it depicts real jury deliberations (highly debatable) or whether it represents a 1950’s liberal’s fantasy about how juries are supposed to work (not debatable.) But we can’t argue with its power and its ultimate message: this is a system of justice, regular people participate in it — and the Framers were pretty smart guys.
We ask jurors to resolve issues of significance between their fellow citizens — and between their fellow citizens and the government. Trial lawyers have a symbiotic relationship with juries: we each need the other in order to do our job properly. Watching 12 Angry Men can help you remember why you wanted to be a trial lawyer – and why you want to be the best one you can be.