Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose
Have you ever heard the expression herding cats? It’s all about situations when you just can’t seem to get people to agree on anything or coordinate their efforts. Like cats, people have strong and oh, let’s just go ahead and say, stubborn personalities.
You could probably summarize the plot of 12 Angry Men as: “Herding cats… with life and death at stake.” That’s right: this is the story of one jury that just can’t decide on a verdict. And why is that? Well, one man decides to take on a room full of really stubborn cats and get them to give a Not Guilty verdict for a kid they all think murdered his own father.
Here’s a guy with a strong sense of justice and sympathy. Juror #8 wants to do everything he can to help the kid on trial for murder, and he stands up against all the other jurors who are convinced that the kid is guilty. It’s not easy, but over time, Juror #8 uses all his smarts and moral arguments to convince these other jurors to change their minds. Oh, yeah, and along the way, he restores our faith in democracy and human goodness.
Not bad, eh?
First released in 1957, 12 Angry Men was nominated for three Academy Awards and got a pretty decent response from critics. On the other hand, it didn’t do very well at the box office, since color films were just starting to come out, and people were less tempted to see an old fashioned-looking black and white flick like 12 Angry Men. It was only later, when networks started showing the movie on TV, that people really started getting behind the thing. You might even say that people started off with a really rigid attitude toward the movie, but then were slowly convinced to change their minds about it. Sound familiar, even ironically similar to its subject? In 1997, Director William Friedkin remade the film with a superstar casting lineup. This version enjoys a rating of 92% positive on Rotten Tomatoes.
The three main themes in Twelve Angry Men are justice, innocence, and class. These themes are interwoven, playing off of each other as the jury deliberates. In their hands, justice seems fragile, subject to the whims of men who just want to go home. With the exception of Juror Eight, none of the men bother to think twice about the case before the first vote. His persistence forces them to confront their own class biases and give the impoverished defendant, a teenage boy accused of killing his abusive father, a fair trial. Ultimately, justice prevails, and the boy is found innocent. So are the scales of justice blind to race and social status, or are individuals too flawed to render a fair decision when race or social class are involved?
If literature illuminates life, this play shines a spot on the American justice system. Does the play celebrate or condemn our criminal courts? Take a stand.
Writing Prompt: Does Reginald Rose’s play, Twelve Angry Men, celebrate or condemn the American criminal justice system?
The best responses will have specific evidence from both the play and life. Consider working some of the information from this inspirational Ted Talk by Bryan Stephenson.
Ideas for One Act Plays
Driver’s Test by Alden Carter
Cages by Walter Dean Myers