Successfully, 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957) Reflects Social and Political Tensions in 1950s America

The United States of America had an economic boom during the post-war period, leaving the 1930s economic depression and the Second World War behind their backs. Unfortunately, the Cold War started immediately in 1947, raising the American people’s tension. Films played a role in portraying social movements during the 1950s. In parallel, during the same period independent filmmakers with the power of the new technology, the television, got the chance to fly out of the regular type of cinema production.

12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957) has successfully reflected political and social tensions in 1950s America. Briefly, it is about a jury making a decision regarding a murder trial. Its genre has been described as drama, crime, thriller, mystery, and film noir (Kuznetsov, Slezak, and Hepting, 2011: 254). It has discussed civil rights according to race, class, ideas, and the threats to American democracy. Moreover, the issues have been characterized by the jurors’ behaviours, ideas, and decisions with high cinematographic techniques and direction.

12 Angry Men Poster

The American Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War have created social and political tensions among Americans. This period shaped their choices in their domestic policies and their relations with the world. Initially, America was challenged with several consequences politically, economically, and culturally, but eventually, it became stronger (Norton et al., 2014: 747).

After the Second World War, Europe and Asia were overwhelming, but the United States farms, cities, and factories were unharmed. The gross national product (GNP) reached $212.3 billion in 1945 and $500 billion in 1960. The annual growth rate averaged about 3 percent annually for the period between 1945 and 1973 (Levine, 2011: 10). However, the social and political tension continued during the Cold War, while the Americans were scared of a nuclear war that would happen between the Soviet Union and America.

Hollywood was influenced by the 1950s’ economic, social and political situations that allowed low-budget films to become a key industry player, competing with major studios and filmmakers (Davis, 2012: 9). Additionally, during the same period, television became a major form of communication. By 1950, 98 television stations and four million television sets were established, and by 1962, 90 percent of American families owned at least one television (Carlisle, 2009: 28). The television’s popularity was growing, and low-budget films had the majority of the broadcasted films on it (2012: 9-10).

On Broadway, Reginald Rose, a television writer, won an Emmy Award in 1954 for best-written dramatic material for the original television version of 12 Angry Men (Kelley, 2002). While Henry Fonda, a great star who has been nominated for Oscar, had the feature rights, no studio in Hollywood wanted to fund the project, regardless of its excellent reviews and awards. The potential of the independent filmmakers for greater rewards during this era was extensive. They were not worried about commercial risks that many films have been ranked among the highest releases.

Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Pennsylvania
21 April 1957, Page 54

Fonda and Rose merged their production companies to produce the film 12 Angry Men (1957). They have chosen Sidney Lumet as a director according to his experience in television work (Simon, 2015). Additionally, Lumet and Rose had worked together previously in crime in the Streets (1955) and Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956). However, 12 Angry Men was Lumet’s first cinematic feature film, and he was able to engage the Oscar-winning cinematographer Boris Kaufman. The courtroom drama was filmed in 19 days on a budget of $343,000 (Simon, 2015). The film was a great example of its period. It was a low-budget film and originally a television drama that was produced by independent filmmakers and ranked among the highest releases.

12 Angry Men is about 12 jurors deciding about a murder trial. The defendant is a Puerto Rican who has a criminal record. He is accused of killing his father with a knife. The film features 12 white males of middle-aged and middle-class status deliberating the case. All in a small courtroom in hot summer in New York. The jurors are anonymous, and they are only identified by their numbers. Similarly, the defendant, the victim, the lawyer, and the witnesses, have never been named.

The film starts with the judge reminding the jury of their duty by mentioning a few details about the case, while the rest of the details are clarified during the discussion between the jurors. When the jurors go to their special room to agree on a decision. They all assume that the defendant is guilty, except the 8th juror, Henry Fonda, maintains that he is uncertain and is the only one who votes not guilty. Eventually, the jurors start questioning a series of arguments, statements, and pieces of evidence, changing their opinions and decisions one by one, all influenced by the 8th juror who is shown as reasonable and rational regarding the duty. He stands in his position, pursuing the other jurors to change their votes. Finally, they all decide that the defendant is not-guilty before they leave the room (Boulanger-Mashberg, 2012: 2-5).

Rose and Lumet both have experienced background situations that made them able to present the film expressively. Rose was inspired to write the script through his experience as a juror in a criminal case at the Foley Square courthouse (Rosenbaum, 2011). While Lumet was almost blacklisted after mentioning his name in the anti-communist newsletter, Counterattack. In addition, both of them were Jewish immigrants and rose in a slum environment (Lee, 2011). Accordingly, the film has provided questions of justice, moral rehabilitation, unjust conviction, and liberty, as well as displaying legal argumentation regarding prosecutors, defenders, and jurors (Berra, 2010: 67).

12 Angry Men official trailer

12 Angry Men opens with a shot of the New York City Supreme Court building imposing George Washington’s quotation:

The True Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good Government.

George Washington

The film simplifies Washington’s quotation that the good administration of justice should depend on the honesty and ethics of judicial forces. supposedly, these 12 ordinary persons are selected randomly and asked to make a fair, neutral decision, but all of them except one are shown to be uninterested, biased, and prejudiced (Curran, 2012: 115). In fact, the 1950s in America was a time of ideological crisis, the rise of suburban life, and the loss of faith in cultural values. The jury room drama was a critical vehicle for exposing tensions and conflicts in American society (Landy, 1991: 95).

Moreover, the period between the 1950s and the 1960s was a civil rights era. During this period, Americans sought to reduce race, class, and gender inequality and segregation, specifically, dismantling the white-only domination (Richardson and Johanningmeier, 2003:pp7). For example, they banned segregation in the Armed Force and allowed the entry of African American athletes into sports (Rosales, 1997:108).

In 12 Angry Men, the 12 white male jurors start by showing their oversimplified image and idea about the Puerto Rican living in a slum. By the late 1950s, Puerto Ricans have appeared to some people in America as a danger. Leibowitz spread crime statistics suggested that Puerto Ricans who made up 7 percent of the population, committed 22 percent of the juvenile crimes. While some people defended them, such as Senator Jacob Javits. He said, “they were looking for a better life but have been crowded into rat-infested places where they can’t have a chance in the world” (Darien, 2013: 85). The slums are often physically decrepit and overcrowded to the point where the lowest income people live, and Crimes in them abound.

Generally, the jury should often represent the American judicial system with its claim of honesty, justice, and neutrality (Dirks, 2016). 12 Angry Men shows most jurors initially deciding according to racist values rather than critically analyzing the evidence.

  • In the beginning, the 10th juror, Ed Begley, says:

I’m tellin’ you they let the kids run wild up there.

Rose, 1996: 9
  • Later the 4th juror, E. G. Marshall, who is supposed to think logically says:

Children from slum backgrounds are potential menaces to society.

Rose, 1996: 24
  • The 3rd juror, Lee J. Cobb, is not racist but builds up his decision according to the previous story between him and his son. In addition, he kept resisting the 8th juror’s arguments during the whole film and is the last one to change his vote (Boulanger-Mashberg, 2012: 4-5).
  • On the other hand, the 5th juror, Jack Klugman, is a successful example of a hard worker who rose and lived in slums all his life.

By the early 1950s, the terms socialism and communism were considered a threat in the American community, but capitalism and free enterprise were understood as a weapon of freedom (Gunn, 2008: 11). The United States launched a global anti-communist crusade. This period is known for the movements of the American politician, Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was supported by investigators at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They were chasing communist supporters throughout the United States (Stacy, 2002: 222).

Many American intellectuals and artists were accused of being communists during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) trials during the Cold War, without sufficient evidence, such as Lumet and Fonda. 12 Angry men has been a reminder of these trials when the defendant has been accused initially according to where he was living and by false testimonies. Even though the judicial system should take its course despite all ideological and political belongings (Saporito, 2015).

What is McCarthyism?

McCarthy fell in 1953 when he started investigating the military and was stopped by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Cold War Museum, 1991). The film has released when McCarthyism reached high recognition. Accordingly, it was warning American citizens to pay serious attention to their civic and social responsibilities; otherwise, the foundation of the American democracy might crack (Coffey, 2013).

The message to appreciate being part of a democratic process came through the statement of the German immigrant, the 11th juror, George Voskovec. He says

I have always thought, is a remarkable thing about democracy. We are notified to come down to decide on the guilt or innocence of man we have never heard before. We should not make it a personal thing.

Rose, 1996: 74

The obvious example of being carless is the 7th juror, Jack Warden when he changes his vote to not guilty because the 11th juror said “he had enough and some baseball tickets burning a hole in his pocket.” The 7th juror is a baseball fan, giving more attention to the match than the juror’s responsibility. According to the 11th juror’s description, he is playing “with a man’s life,” and this was “a terrible and ugly thing to do” (Rose, 1996: 96-97). Another example was when the 3rd and 12th jurors, Robert Webber, played tic-tac-toe in the middle of the proceeding. Then the 8th juror tore and dropped the sheet in the waste basket reminding them of their lack of seriousness (Saporito, 2015), saying “this is not a game” (1996: 48).

12 Angry Men (1957) was shot as film noir, a dark style that emerged from social forces associated with expansion and modernization. In America, noir sociology was usually leading filmmakers’ works into immigrant workers, juvenile crimes, criminal gangs, and live prostitutes. Film noir form follows certain thematic elements such as claustrophobic compositions, tight angles, and the employment of light and shadow (Salerno, 2007: 20). In addition, by using the noir style, Lumet has included multiple layered interiors and other spaces that created unusual separations and associations between the jurors that it matches the plot complexity (Auger, 2011: 50-51).

Creatively, Lumet combined high and eye-level camera angles with wide shots in the beginning to give more objectivity. Whenever the discussion has excited, and more jurors have changed their votes, the camera angles have changed to low angles combined with close-up shots to give more pressure and claustrophobia (Renée, 2016). As a result, the film has received huge recognition and has won 3 nominations for Oscar as Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Writing. It has gotten 16 wins and 11 nominations since it has produced (IMDb, 1990).

In conclusion, the cold War created racist ideas among Americans and left them tenser with each other, especially between capitalists and communists. Fortunately, the beginning of television allowed independent filmmakers to appear. Reginald Rose, Henry Fonda, and Sidney Lumet have created an outstanding American dark artistry work independently, ranked among Hollywood’s highest releases. The film presents a juror persuading 11 racist jurors to decide ‘not-guilty’ regarding a poor kid accused in a murder trial, showing them making their decisions racially without analyzing the evidence critically, while the rest act irresponsible and careless. 12 Angry Men was an awareness that the democratic system of America truly might be affected if the judicial system lost its credibility. Proudly, many critics appreciated it, and it has achieved many awards and nominations since it has produced.

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