Currently ranked at #5 on IMDB’s list of top 250 films according to its viewers, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is beloved for its inspiring portrayal of justice defeating racial injustice and the ideals of the American justice system (innocent until proven guilty, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.). 12 Angry Men is actually even more than these admirable qualities. Because it’s set entirely during the jury’s deliberation, we see plenty of details of the case but all second-hand through the jurors. The movie is about the jurors, not the case or the defendant, as the title says. And being about these jurors, it is also a movie about anger.
12 different types of anger are presented through the 12 angry men. Each juror’s thinking process is influenced, maybe even controlled, by the type of anger prominent for him. The juror played by Ed Begley is controlled by his hateful anger that always refers to the defendant with phrases like “one of those people,” revealing prejudicial anger toward an entire people group that has no basis in reality. The juror played by E.G. Marshall expresses a self-righteous anger, so in love with being right that his anger manifests itself in a suspicious antagonism against anyone who disagrees with him but never in a mad, violent way like Eg Begley’s character. The juror played by Robert Weber shows a passive aggressive type of anger that tries to soften everything with jokes but at the same time uses his humor as a weapon to try to get his way showing his own anger against anyone who tries to upset the way he sees the world. The juror played by Jack Warden has the most selfish anger of the bunch, throwing childish fits whenever it looks like deliberation could prevents his plan of going to the Yankees game later in the day.
The juror played by Lee J. Cobb has the most violent outbursts of any juror in the movie. His character is also the one most developed. His anger works against him and is more effective at changing votes from guilty to not guilty than Henry Fonda’s direct attempts to do that. We learn that his anger is mostly against himself, and he takes that anger out on the defendant who reminds him his son. His anger, like all the others I’ve mentioned, threatens to stand in the way of justice being accomplished. They hinder justice because their anger hinders them from sound thinking and judgment. They’re all so bound by their prejudices and selfish ambitions that they’re unable to clearly see the facts they’re presented with.
The other jurors are all more open-minded than the others. Even though 11 initially vote guilty, the others are willing to listen to the juror played by Henry Fonda when he shares what he believes to be plenty of reasonable doubts in favor of the defendant. But that doesn’t mean that they’re any less angry than the jurors I’ve already mentioned. These all have types of anger that enhance their abilities to think well, to feel for other people, and to do the jobs they’re there to do. Because of the relationship between anger and thinking, 12 Angry Men is just as much about critical thinking as it is about justice.
One is motivated by the anger related to his own childhood similar to that of the defendant. This anger motivates him towards beliefs that no one should have to grow up that way, it motivates him towards sympathy with the defendant, and it will not stand for the ignorance spouted by the other jurors. Another juror’s anger is about being an old man who feels ignored and disrespected. When a few of the jurors blatantly disregard him, that anger motivates him to stand up for himself and for those who are at that point in the minority in favor of acquittal. I could go on like this for all of them, but I will stop here.
Yes, that means I’m not going to talk about Henry Fonda’s anger, but that’s just because his is the easiest, he’s angry at injustice. He’s the reason the movie is so well loved, because he is the center of the movie’s view of justice. That’s great and reason enough for the movie to be as well loved as it is. There’s just a lot more to the anger than anyone ever seems to talk about, and I think it’s about time we listen to the title of the movie and learn from it, because the movie is a profound portrayal of both healthy vs. unhealthy anger. Anger affects our thinking whether for good or for bad, and this movie is about the necessity to check ourselves and our anger, is it serving our thinking as it does for the jurors I mentioned last, or is our thinking serving it like those I mentioned first?