12 angry men

Court scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird'

Depiction of Racism in Cinema

I was one of many in my neighborhood and school to have called out name ‘bhaiya’ or ‘madhisey’ for the street vendors from Madhesh. It was the earliest misnomer I picked up from my own family and neighbors. It was easy blemishing someone’s identity by just refereeing them with an offensive name; but it never occurred to me then how those small incidents would impact my conscience years later.

It was easy growing up a racist; even throwing subtle racist remarks towards close friends with a laugh to hide it after. Once I got hold of what it feels like, it was harder growing up afterwards. It was tough unlearning the things I learned. The phase of self-analysis and atonement began.

I never had a moral figure in my life, I only had elders and the mainstream Hindi films to look up to. And, I learned what they casually preached. To treat someone different on the basis of their color, language, accent and occupation is a grave offense which often goes unpunished in our society. if it weren’t true, I should have been incarcerated long ago.


Depiction of Racism in Cinema

Films made on Racism or race related issues find a deep place among niche audience, however, most treat them as just movies. Most of the time, they are often branded too controversial for their depiction of the bitter reality or are outright obliterated for being too offensive. Mostly because, real historical portrayal brings unpleasant attention towards certain class of people or group.

Segregation 1940s

Segregation during 1940s

The earliest film ever made on the issue of racism didn’t came out until mid-1950s, around the same time the American civil rights movement took the noble step. It took a while to bring the subject of African-Americans and other minorities into Hollywood. In contrast, these films aren’t only the reflection of the prevalent racism in America but the entire world where the racial minorities are expulsed by the society and the justice system. Racism is prevalent in Asian countries too and extraordinarily in larger number, however, we only have had few films that ever dealt with the issue.

To quote James Baldwin (American novelist and social critic),

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

When we talk about the depiction of racism in cinema, the earliest films that come to our mind are 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both of which are the finest example of films ever made depicting the prevalent racism in the society.

12 Angry Men came out in 1957 and To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. These two films are only 5 years apart from each other, however, the issue depicted in both the films resonates the sociopolitical strife made on the racial minorities. `The racial profiling and mistreatment of the minorities in America is largely the context for both the films.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is based on a book, by the same title, by Harper Lee which went to win the Pulitzer Prize. The film too went to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Both the setting of the book and the author emerges from the Southern America in 1930s, hence highlighting the prevalent social issues existing in the South. The story is inspired by the life of a young African-American man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of rape of a young white woman. The accused is indicted; and later killed while trying to flee the court. The movie came out the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for his involvement in the civil rights movement.

“12 Angry Men” takes on the issue of a young Puerto Rican man falsely accused of a homicide. It closely follows the debate on indictment by the 12 jurors assigned for the trial. The story goes as such, “A young Puerto Rican man is falsely accused of killing his own father on the basis of few unreliable testimonies provided by the witnesses. The jurors base their judgments on the Reasonable doubt and accuse the man for the first degree murder, however, one juror believes in fairer trial for all and persuades others to give a thought before letting their judgement take over. What follows is a long debate on the man’s right for justice, along with reflection on the jurors’ biases and justice system. The jurors reflect on their own life and beliefs before deciding the fate of the young man, but it takes lot of persuasion from one single man to make it happen. At the end, the accused is proven innocent and acquitted by the court.”

Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, which is set in Alabama during 1930s, the story of 12 Angry Men is entirely set in New York City, hence the outcome of both the stories differ. There were less likely chances of Tom Robinson, an African-American, ever being acquitted in the white-supremacist state. In an interesting theory, neither would the accused Puerto Rican from 12 Angry Men stand a chance of being acquitted if his trial was ever conducted in the southern state of Alabama. Here both the events are triggered by the supposed crimes committed by the person of a racial minority, and both the trails are conducted by the justice system led by white men.

The surprising similarity in both is that they have white male protagonists. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Davis in 12 Angry Men, a lawyer and an Architect respectively. Both are the highly regarded personals of the society. Both the protagonists are well educated and serve as the downright moral hero of the story. They both advocate the civil rights and justice for the weaker class of citizens,

Although, cinema has inclined upwards and many such sensible films have been made in the last 60 years, a colored male or female protagonists with a strong moral characters have been seen only lesser. Few films with such an adjustment can only be seen in the modern era works of Ida Wells: The Passion for Justice (1989), Paul Robeson: Here I stand (1999) and Richard Wright –Black Boy (1994).

In Context of Nepali Films

In Nepal, the racism existed since the creation of the first state. The prevalent Hindu hierarchy has attested the rudimentary practice of racial profiling and differentiation since the inception of caste based system. There are hardly any films in Nepal made on the discrimination faced by people on the basis of their race, caste or color, mainly because we mostly lack audience and filmmakers who can tackle such an overwhelming project with an assertive approach.

Most of the mainstream films made in Nepal tend to exploit the cliché and stereotypical constitution of the racial minorities but discourage it entirely. It still tends to be a fun-stock for the general audience, hence, there are less likely chances of sensible racism-countering films ever being made.

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12 angry men cover photo

12 Angry Men (1957)

Right to Justice is an indispensable birthright of every human being. The Justice system is built on the structure of right to justice without any biases or prejudgment of any kind. Fair trail for any defendant in the court of law is equally a rightful entitlement which upholds their right to justice and fulfills the cause for a fairer society.

Many a time, justice fails to serve those who need it the most. In a society, which is built on the supremacy of one race, class or culture and domination of other, justice triumphs for only those who enjoy the privilege of controlling it.

12 Angry Men is one of the earliest films to be made on the issue of racism in America and the trial of a racial minority.  Roger Ebert has cleverly summed up the film;

In form, “12 Angry Men” is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it’s a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It has a kind of stark simplicity.

Review

12 Angry Men provides an important insight on human conscience, rationality and decision making. It also raises the question of rationality and prejudgment which accompanies any juror in the court. As rightly pointed out, Jury duty is a moral duty. The film brings out the moral in the jury duty.

Official Poster of 12 Angry Men

Official Poster of 12 Angry Men

It starts with 12 men from different walks of life complaining, contemplating and grudging about their respective lives in a small jury chamber. It begins with a simple vote counting 11 ‘Guilty’ and a single ‘Not’. What follows, is a lengthy course of reasoning for a fair trail, questioning of the justice system, attacks on personal choices and personal conflict with biases. The end brings the unanimous 12 votes counting ‘Not Guilty’.

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is the one who challenges the vote for ‘Guilty’. He reasons with each one of jurors to make them understand the need of righteousness in this case which may serve as the finest example for many cases to come later.

The assertive dialogues and the greater gesticulations of actors add life to the entire story, many sub-plots are interweaved into one to create a single plot which serves as the story lasting a full 95 minutes. Juror 8’s immense persuasion in bringing facts and possibilities on the table for discussion brings a general disapproval but at the end he is able to bring a change.

Set in a single room, the film shows few glimpses of the court room. Evidences are shown only second-hand, as reasons for disposition of the case. The background score is less yet subtle. Sydney Lumet‘s directorial debut proves to be a an important film for all the generations.

 ★★★★★/5

~Synopsis~

Not Guilty – 1/11

12 angry men snapshot

Jurors are sent to a room to decide on the fate of a young accused

Not Guilty – 2/10

12 angry men snapshot

Jurors being ready to vote

Not Guilty – 3/9

12 angry men snapshot

Only one, Juror # 8, calls “Not Guilty,” rest jurors are convinced of the crime

Not Guilty – 4/8

12 angry men snapshot

Juror #10 makes bigot and prejudiced remarks against the accused, which other find offensive

Not Guilty – 5/7

12 angry men snapshot

Juror #8 tries hard to convince others to find a reasonable doubt

Not Guilty – 6/6

12 angry men snapshot

Juror # 5 is the most articulate person in the entire team, who doesn’t even break sweat at all

Not Guilty – 7/5

12 angry men snapshot

Juror # 9, an old man, is supportive of Juror # 8’s approach in analyzing the truth

Not Guilty – 8/4

12 angry men snapshot

Juror # 8 makes some insightful criticisms on the evidences and witnesses provided

Not Guilty – 9/3

12 angry men snapshot

Juror # 3 is the one who is most stubborn and declares Juror #8’s reasons a filth

Not Guilty – 10/2

12 angry men snapshot

Juror #3 tries proving the method of killing to Juror #8

Not Guilty – 11/1

12 angry men snapshot

All the jurors find Juror #3’s remarks against the case offensive

Not Guilty – 12/0

12 angry men snapshot

Juror #5 and #6 watch Juror #3 as he blabbers about his personal angst against criminals.


 

 

12 Angry Men (1957)

Directed by Sydney Lumet, Written by Reginald Rose, Produced by Henry Fonda, Reginald Rose, Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Martim Balsam and others

Distributed by United Artists