12 Angry Men: Crime and Punishment in New York City

In the Chicago-Kent Law Review David Ray Papke perceptively notes that few popular procedural dramas focus entirely on the process of jury deliberation as entertainment [1]. As Papke argues, 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957) is the exception that proves the rule. In a claustrophobic jury deliberation room we watch an all-white, all-male jury decide the fate of an underprivileged boy (of indeterminate racial extraction) accused of murdering his father in cold blood. One man, Davis (the juror played by Henry Fonda) goes against the crowd, and cuts through racism and prejudice with Reason, to reveal the innocence of the accused. Papke sees Davis as a ‘genuine American hero’[2] and the film as a Tocquevillian love letter to the juristic process [3]. While there are issues with this view, which I discuss later, it is true that 12 Angry Men is an anomaly, not only as a presentation of the legal process, but also as a cinematic representation of the spaces of New York City.
Despite shooting largely static dialogues and strictly maintaining the Aristotelian unities of space and time, Lumet nevertheless manages to create the illusion of a space beyond the frame. The audience is presented with a picture of New York City and urban crime in a uniquely anti-cinematic way. The film builds up a cityscape, not through images, as you would expect, but through omission. Scenes are remembered and reconstructed through sound bites and memories, in a manner that has more in common with sound recordings of testimony and oral history than it does with film. New York City in 12 Angry Men is a very real space; Lumet, however, chooses to describe rather than display the urban landscape, and so breaks the cardinal rule of cinematic practice: Show, don’t tell!
The city is evoked by means of metonymy through personification. Each character represents a social group or a particular point of view: we are introduced to, among others, the advertising executive, the migrant, the elderly outcast, the sports-fan, the bigot, and the sceptical humanist (Davis). While the jury is hardly diverse (more on this later), the film does at least succeed in defining the city as a space made up of differing social and ethnic groups, occupying different spaces. The men openly discuss urban tensions, ghettos and segregated living, which are reflected in descriptions of personal experience, and the seating arrangements in the deliberation room (Fig 1). The city beyond the room remains an imaginary structure: a sum of recalled events and memories. And urban crime is spoken of and remembered. We hear snippets of the court case and personal testimony in a variety of accents. Urban landmarks crop up in conversation. Billboards and the language of advertising are constantly referred to, conjuring up the signage of the big city. Communal spaces of work and play inform the jurors’ investigations; the sports-fan is late for the game; we ride the subway when, at a crucial moment in the plot, a train is evoked as evidence; we even go to the movies when a juror is asked to recall the last film he saw. All the while we remain locked in the deliberation room.
The film thus demands that New York be experienced in memory, read and imagined by the jurors and, by extension, the viewer. The process of exploring the city is not visual in any traditional cinematic sense, but it does rely on visual metonymy. It is tactile, logical, and archaeological in nature. Objects are examined and handled (Fig 2). The jurors reconstruct their use. We also experience space itself as an object; jurors use maps to build up an itinerary of the crime (Fig 3). Davis even physically paces out and re-enacts key scenarios from the night of the murder. He measures out the length of an eyewitness’ apartment, and walks through the space (Fig 4).

Crucially, testimony and perception are brought into question as individuals reconstruct the same event in different ways (Figs 5 and 6). As the film eschews direct reconstruction in the form of flashback, it actively theorises that seeing should not mean believing. Reality lies in the spaces in between. And what the film doesn’t show or tell us about New York is most revealing, and troubling. Judge Nancy Gertner sums up the issue when she writes: ‘The jurors spoke in different accents, reasoned in different ways, but they hardly reflected the true diversity of the city they were in, New York.’[4] There is, indeed, an undeniable lack of racial and gender diversity on screen. However, I would argue that, again, the film examines through omission. As Judge Gertner demonstrates, Lumet’s twelve angry men remained (as late as 2007 and perhaps beyond), an accurate depiction of the social make-up of a real-life jury. Judge Gertner writes: ‘…while the modern federal jury is not likely to be all male, as in 12 Angry Men, in most parts of the country it could well be all white.’[5]
Arguably then, rather than being a love letter to the American legal system as Papke claims, the film highlights systemic problems. And in doing so, it leaves the viewer feeling uneasy about the structures of crime and punishment operating in American cities. As the jurors disperse on the steps of the court, in one of the films two exterior shots, a troubling question remains in the cold light of day (Fig 7): what if Davis had failed to attend jury duty on the day of the trial? The fact remains that without Davis to lead them, the other jurors may have reached a guilty verdict. A verdict we now know to be wrong. The victory for the justice system is Pyrrhic: the diegesis highlights prejudice and a widespread lack of understanding of legal processes among the citizens of New York. Both as a critical look at the legal system and as a manipulation of the rules of cinematic form, therefore, 12 Angry Men remains relevant. It urges the viewer to look again. It demands that we see beyond omission, and re-evaluate how we reach decisions. The film questions empirical proofs, and asks that the viewer look at and see differently – both the spaces of New York City on film, and the structures that govern them in reality.

[1] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, The Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 82:2, 2007, p. 735-748, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/chknt82&div=35&id=&page, (Accessed 25 Jan. 2015)
[2] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, p. 736
[3] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, p.747
[4] Judge Nancy Gertner, ’12 Angry Men (and Women) in Federal Court’, The Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 82:2, 2007, p. 613, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/chknt82&div=27&id=&page, (Accessed: 25 Jan. 2015)
[5] Judge Nancy Gertner, ’12 Angry Men (and Women) in Federal Court’, p. 614

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