The Tenacity of Spite

As the thematic underpinning to a dramatic narrative, the tenacity of spite is nothing new. A grudge unsatisfied, a prejudice undiminished. Yet it has sustained Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men over decades and through several screen variants, most penned by Rose himself. Sidney Lumet’s 1957 interpretation of Rose’s exploration of the stubbornness that is born of stubbornness is held in higher esteem than its counterparts, Lumet’s execution of the text rightly hailed as a classic example of the motion picture’s ability to spark worthwhile debate on the human condition. It has accordingly been studied time and again as both a film text and a social document.

This, however, should not be seen to diminish the value of its return to teleplay form, in William Friedkin’s 1997 updating. Though the text itself transcends the alterations wrought by its continual re-staging (including, to a less direct degree, Nikita Mikhalkov’s 2007 Russian language 12 and Basu Chatterjee’s 1986 Hindi Ek Ruka Hua Faisla), there is value in a close examination of more contemporary translations such as Friedkin’s – particularly as Rose’s authorship remains attached to this version. As a source of comparative study with Rose’s 1954 teleplay for the Studio One anthology series or with his 1957 expanded screenplay, it is ideally suited for textual analysis in the English classroom.

Following are suggested points for discussion, which it is hoped demonstrate the breadth and depth of issue-based analysis available to teachers and students when studying this text.

Through George C Scott’s Juror #3 we see the effect that baggage associated with strained family relationships can have on decision-making. He is disappointed with the path his son has taken in life, a father’s expectations shattered by reality. These feelings are sufficiently strong that they transform Juror #3 into the play’s antagonist, his prejudice against the accused fuelled by his familial disappointment.

This character trait also edges on the theme of the generation gap, a distinct divide occasionally emerging between the values of the older and younger jurors. Juror #3 paints all youth with the same brush; James Gandolfini’s Juror #6 is respectful of his elders and makes a firm point of it; logic and rational thinking are valued by the post-middle aged Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Juror #4 and Edward James Olmos’s Juror #11; while the “hero” of the piece, septuagenerian Jack Lemmon’s Juror #8, is supported early on by octogenarian Hume Cronyn’s Juror #9. Throughout, generational battles rage in the name of a very youthful accused, the 23-year-old Douglas Spain playing eighteen. That Rose was in his mid-thirties when he penned the original teleplay but in his seventies when this retelling was produced suggests that a direct comparison between the portrayal of age in the 1954 and 1997 productions would be prudent should a student wish to follow this analytical path.

12 Angry Men is effective in identifying class distinctions in supposedly classless American society. Though the American class system is arguably more mutable than, say, its British counterpart (wherein birthright remains a factor), it is here clearly depicted. Through Tony Danza’s Juror #7, Rose paints this system as fundamentally aspirational, the juror’s belief that baseball tickets earned and paid for entitles him to the privilege of a night’s entertainment in favour of a defendant’s liberty. Dorian Harewood’s Juror #5, from the slums of Harlem, is more acutely aware of the damage that an economic class system can produce, and he more readily sympathises with the accused as a consequence. Interestingly, Rose paints the class system with appropriate shades of grey. Juror #6 is a house painter but is depicted as essentially clean-cut, polite and even-tempered. Juror #11, a European watchmaker (albeit portrayed by the part-Mexican Olmos), makes no real deliberations on a class system that must surely be evident to him as an outsider seeking the “American dream”.

Race relations come to the fore in the 1997 version more than in any other. Here, for the first time on screen, the jury is not entirely caucasian. The European heritage of Jurors #4, #6 and #7 is not commented on, only Juror #11 being (somewhat ambiguously) defined by his European ethnicity. However, the presence of subtext could be argued as Juror #4 (played by the heavily German-accented Mueller-Stahl) examines the trial through the dispassionate veneer of “facts” – perhaps the sort of pseudo-rational thinking that led to so much Nazi practice?

More significant to Rose is the presence of no less than four African-American jurors. The accused is Hispanic, and racism (and accusations thereof) rears its head throughout this version of the story. Especially potent is the reassigning of the loud-mouthed bigot role from an old-fashioned WASP to a fully garbed former Nation of Islam member. In a post-9/11 world, this might be interpreted as a potentially incendiary piece of rewriting, but one must wonder if Mykelti Williamson’s Juror #10 was kicked out of the Nation of Islam because of the bigoted attitudes he demonstrates.

(An attempt to demystify Islamic tradition and differentiate between vastly different Muslim groups would be prudent practice in the classroom should discussion of Juror #10’s background emerge. He is of course no aggressive Islamist, and the Nation of Islam was created to improve conditions for socially and economically oppressed African-Americans. This background should reveal the irony inherent in the characterisation of Juror #10, that he has sought to overcome racial oppression but is more than happy to dish it out to other minorities.)

Ultimately, the portrayal of African-Americans in the telefilm can be seen as positive, since these four jurors are depicted as markedly different (and often oppositional) characters, a fact that gives them three-dimensionality and defines them not as “the black jurors” but as “jurors”.

Rose’s text has always functioned as a criticism of the judicial system itself – albeit one where that system is shown ultimately to work. If it is not abused, the text argues, if deliberations are made vigourously and at length, with no other matters prioritised over them, then an appropriate verdict will result. (This is a view optimistically shared and openly asserted by Juror #11.) However, the text does identify the weakness inherent in court-appointed legal representation – Juror #8 does a more thorough investigation than the defence attorney – but by doing this it extends the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” into the deliberation room. It may be the prosecution’s job to prove a defendant’s guilt, but it is the jury’s position to unanimously decide as much.

(A supporting text is the 2011 ABC series On Trial, where the function and responsibilities of the jury are comprehensively clarified by the various presiding judges. Excerpts from this series may prove to be a useful secondary resource.)

Another theme prevalent in 12 Angry Men, and one that is closely linked to an assessment of the judicial system – is the place of the human condition in civic duty. Juror #5, from the Harlem slums, feels a connection with the accused. Ossie Davis’s Juror #2 is overwhelmed by the whole affair. Juror #6 is respectful by default, particularly of his elders. Juror #7 has greater concerns than justice, and Juror #10 is hateful. William Petersen’s Juror #12 is easily swayed by the opinions of others, an alarming trait in someone whose view is intended to represent one-twelfth of a unanimous vote. Finally, Juror #4 thinks the deliberation should be approached logically, conveniently forgetting the baggage of his own life experience and somehow assuming it will not colour his explication of the evidence. Extending Juror #4’s position to the entire room, how is absolute dispassionate analysis possible in a scenario that requires twelve humans – all strangers at that – to contribute to a life-or-death decision?

Finally, any analysis of a text with the word “men” in the title cannot overlook the role played by gender. As befitting the title, the jurors are all men. Yet stage versions of the text (many written by Rose himself) have comfortably diverged from this stricture, some going under the banners 12 Angry Jurors or, in an inversion of the original’s sexism, 12 Angry Women. This modernisation of a story written in a time when women could be excused from jury duty by virtue of being women is as worthwhile as the broadened ethnicity of Friedkin’s film for television. Unfortunately, his adaptation appears content to revere the original title as sacrosanct (or more marketable?), and an examination of its tokenism in casting Mary McDonnell as the film’s (briefly seen) judge would make an interesting counterpoint to its more affirmative depiction of race.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s