Spoiler alert: This review contains spoilers. Reader discretion advised.
Last week, I watched for the first time a classic American film. Released in 1957, 12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama. An 18-year-old boy from a slum has stood trial for the stabbing murder of his father. In the course of 96 grayscale minutes, a jury comprised of the titular angry men deliberate the boy’s guilt or innocence. According to the precepts of the U.S. justice system, the jurors are instructed to return a verdict of not guilty if they entertain any reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt. Before dismissing the jurors, the judge reveals that the boy will receive a death sentence if found guilty.
The film highlights the necessity of careful deliberation before a momentous decision and underscores the importance of standing by one’s convictions for just compassion. The 12 jurors are men of varying personalities. The social dynamics between them and the pursuant conflict undergird the conversation about the issue at hand, the boy’s conviction or acquittal. It is in the men’s interaction that the most interesting theological concerns come to the fore. By the end of the movie, our opinions of an antagonist are complicated and we find archetypes of religious modalities.
Jurors remain anonymous for nearly the whole movie; only the surnames of two jurors are revealed at the end. We know each only by his assigned number and the character traits his actions slowly expose:
- Juror One, the foreman, focuses almost exclusively on his administrative functions. He keeps order in the room.
- Juror Two is a meek bank worker who at the beginning of the film allows others to walk all over him. As the plot progresses, he becomes increasingly more self-confident.
- Juror Three, the main antagonist, most ardently defends a guilty verdict. He has a short temper.
- Juror Four is rigidly analytical. He is calm and engages the subject with detached reason.
- Juror Five grew up in a slum. Early on, he finds compassion for the defendant.
- Juror Six seems to be his day’s Joe the Plumber. Tough and principled, he is respectful to everyone else.
- Juror Seven approaches the deliberation with flippancy. He is concerned more with making it to a Yankees game than with the boy’s fate.
- Juror Eight, the main protagonist, defends the boy by voting “not guilty” when everyone else automatically votes to convict him.
- Juror Nine, an elderly man, interjects occasionally with wisdom and insight into human behavior. Like Juror Eight, he demonstrates compassion for the defendant.
- Juror Ten, like Juror Three, is stubborn and combative. He is prejudiced against the defendant, either because of his ambiguous ethnicity or lower socioeconomic status.
- Juror Eleven is an immigrant with a pronounced accent who deliberately speaks with proper grammar.
- Juror Twelve is an advertising executive who goes with the flow. He changes his vote three times based on the popular opinion.
In Juror Eight we find a true agent of justice, reconciliation, and compassion. He compassionately stands up for the rights of the defendant, offering himself as a sacrifice to ridicule and conflict for demanding the group of men recognize the gravity of the situation and fully articulate their reasons for voting guilty. He doggedly persists in his crusade to defend the accused because of the reasonable doubt Juror Eight entertains. Juror Eight stands as a theological exemplar. He lives in uncertainty, acknowledging that he doesn’t know whether or not the boy actually killed his father, but he engages the question on a deep and meaningful level while retaining a preferential option for “the least of these” by advocating for the accused.
In contrast to Juror Eight, Juror Ten reveals his bigotry in a powerful scene. His guilty vote stems not from reasoned arguments, as does that of Juror Four, but from xenophobia or classism. “Well, don’t you know about them? There’s a danger here,” he says to the group. “These people are dangerous. They’re wild. Listen to me. Listen to me.” As he delivers his mini-monologue, one by one the other jurors walk away and turn their backs to him, leaving Juror Ten quietly resigned to shame away from the table. In true Pauline fashion (1 Cor 6:1–7), here the jury exercises corporate judgment on one of their own, offering a just condemnation ironically juxtaposed with the determination of some jurors to convict the boy despite mounting evidence for reasonable doubt. While Paul’s instructions taken literally may prove a dangerously slippery slope to tyranny of the many over the few, this scene illustrates the power of a group united for justice. When power and responsibility is shared, it multiplies—just ask the apostles about loaves and fishes (Mark 6:30–44; Matt 14:13–21; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–14).
A last theological insight comes from the film’s conclusion. The tables have turned, and Juror Three holds out as the last guilty vote. Everyone else has changed their vote from conviction to acquittal. Hearkening back to an earlier scene in which he revealed he hadn’t spoken with his son, whom he raised with a philosophy of tough love, in a number of years, Juror Three in the midst of a tirade against the defendant tears up the photo of him and his son. Realizing he has projected his feelings of hurt, rejection, and anger toward his son onto the defendant, he collapses onto the table in tears and votes to acquit the boy. This scene challenges us to introspection and compassion. All of us find a reflection of ourselves in Juror Three. We repress feelings that are too painful, leaving them to fester and ultimately manifest and misdirect toward others or ourselves. Seeing ourselves in the other we may consider our enemy, we complicate easy, black-and-white narratives of right and wrong that lead to self-righteousness and hypocrisy. As the Dalai Lama has pointed out, all beings who act to cause suffering do so as an attempt to alleviate their own suffering. They deserve our compassion as much as anyone else, even if we must show it differently.
I invite you to watch 12 Angry Men, if you haven’t already, with an eye for these themes. It has dared me to (at least attempt to) view those with whom I disagree with a posture of grace and compassion. Before passing judgment, I might consider their story so that I might not be judged (Matt 7:1). What lessons do you find in this movie?