Theme of Prejudice in the Film 12 Angry Men

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Theme of Prejudice in the Film 12 Angry Men
By Brendan O’Regan St Kevin’s CBS Arklow

Anyone doing the treating the issue of prejudice in R.E. class will find 12 Angry Men a valuable resource, though there isn’t any overt faith element. I find using individual short scenes to be the best approach – time to show and discuss within one class period. I have chosen what I consider to be five key scenes that illustrate the theme effectively – even to do three of them would provide a week’s work. In this commentary I’m dealing primarily with the 1957 version directed by Sidney Lumet, but most comments would also apply to the 1997 version by William Friedkin. In fact for RE classes it might be worth making some comparisons as the jury in the latter is more ethnically balanced, and the judge is a woman, though there are still 12 Men.

Note also that the 1957 film is on the Leaving Cert English course for June 2007, so beware of stealing the thunder of touchy English teachers!

Scene 1: Opening Scene – in the jury room before the first vote Jurors 3 and 10 are the most obviously prejudiced people. Juror 3: “I’d slap those tough kids down before they start any trouble”, a perfect example of prejudging. Juror 10: “You know what we’re dealing with … they let those kids run wild out there”. The director may not have intended it, but the film could also be accused of showing prejudice towards women and black people by excluding them from the proceedings.

Scene 2: First vote to second vote:
Jurors 3 and 10 express their prejudices quite openly here. Juror 3: “the kid’s a dangerous killer, you can see it”; “it’s the kids, the way they are nowadays” (in relation to their not calling their fathers “Sir” anymore); “kids – you work your heart out …”. We see that sometimes people aren’t even aware of their own prejudices – juror 3: “I have no personal feelings about this”. Juror 10 is worse: “I’ve lived among them all my life, you can’t believe a word they say … they’re born liars”. For all his logic and cool headedness, juror 4 has an element of prejudice, or at least he’s very insensitive in what he says: “children from slum backgrounds are potential menaces to society”. Juror 10 responds with “the kids who crawl out of these places are real thrash”. Juror 5, who comes from such a background (and is shown to be sensitive and well mannered) takes offence, and the foreigner (juror 11) can relate to being offended like this: “this sort of sentiments I can understand”, suggesting that he too has suffered prejudice (as he does later in the film).

Scene 3: Losing the Cool – juror 3 provoked

(this scene begins just after the re-enactment of the old man witness’ walk to his door and ends with another vote, which leaves it 6-6). The prejudices and emotional baggage of juror 3 become quite prominent here. He accuses other jurors of having "hearts bleedin' all over the floor about slum kids and injustice" and warns "he's got to burn. You're letting him slip through our fingers". He says he’d willingly “pull the switch” on the young defendant. Earlier he said it wasn’t personal, but juror 8 accuses him: "you want to see this boy die because you personally want it, not because of the facts. You're a sadist". That last comment prompts juror 3 to attack juror 8. Juror 10 again shows his prejudice: 10: "a kid like that", again irritating juror 9, the old man: "that man gets on my ...". We see here how prejudice mixed with high emotion can lead to violence. Is juror 8 too insulting here? Or just trying to provoke a useful reaction (the empty death threat, which has relevance for the case)?

Scene 4: Juror 10’s Bigoted Rant

This issue comes very much to the forefront here with this final rant of juror 10 – both in his speech and in the moral juror 8 draws at the end of it. We see that as a prejudiced person becomes more cornered and isolated he can become more strident, extreme and offensive. Even juror 3, who has his own prejudices,...
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