Twelve Angry Men: Anatomy of a Classic

I recently discussed the 1957 film Twelve Angry Men in a session of my MBA Narrative and Management course dealing with decision-making in small groups. The film, adapted for the theatre in recent years, is widely regarded as a classic. The question I posed of my students is why. What makes it a classic?
We came up with three answers. First, as long as the common law system of justice uses juries, it will be relevant. In essence, it is a story of twelve people locked in a room attempting to reach unanimity in deciding another person’s guilt or innocence. Its very title has led to criticism that it is out-of-date and not reflective of contemporary diversity; my response would be that while the jury in the film was composed entirely of white males, it had considerable diversity in terms of the ages, social status, and ethnic origins of the jurors.

The second answer, particularly appealing to management students, was the set of persuasive and management skills displayed by juror number 8, the architect portrayed by Henry Fonda. Juror # 8 was adept at beginning a conversation many of his fellow jurors wanted to terminate and skilled at reading which of the other jurors would support him when he appeared to be completely alone. He was willing to confront the jurors who were most convinced of the accused’s guilt, thereby empowering the jurors who were wavering, encouraging them to apply their own experience to the case. That character provides a model for MBA students attempting to improve their own leadership skills. In the real world, a person with the leadership skills of juror # 8 would be in a senior management or professional position and would likely be excused from jury duty, which is unfortunate.

The third answer revolves around the nature of the intellectual process in the movie. The prosecution presents a coherent narrative along the following lines. A teenager, after a particularly vehement argument with his father, storms out of the house after dinner and buys a switchblade. He returns before midnight, another argument ensues, and he stabs his father to death. The murder is witnessed by two people in nearby apartments, one who sees it through the windows of a passing elevated subway, the other who goes to his window after hearing a thud. The son runs away for several hours. When he returns home, he is confronted by the police, who have come to investigate the murder. The son says he was out of the house at a movie when the murder happened, but cannot recall the name of the movie he has just seen.

The jury weighed the evidence and found places where it did not accept the prosecution’s narrative, particularly in terms of the credibility of the witnesses’ recollections and the accused’s failure to remember the name of the movie. The jury’s conclusion was that the accused was not guilty because they had reasonable doubts about various aspects of the prosecution’s narrative. There was no requirement for them to come up with an alternative narrative, they only had to cast sufficient doubt on the prosecution’s narrative. In that, the movie very nicely explains how the burden of proof in criminal cases is supposed to operate in our justice system. From a narrative point of view, what the jury did was deconstruct the prosecution’s narrative, rendering it sufficiently doubtful or incoherent that it could not be used to convict. So Twelve Angry Men showed us how an effective jury’s deliberations are a kind of deconstruction of the state’s narrative, written a few years before the deconstructionist movement’s heyday.

Ultimately, a work becomes a class because it maintains its audience, and Twelve Angry Men has. And I think we’ve given some good reasons why it will.

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