The Flawed Symbolism of 12 Angry Men

Movies Features Sidney Lumet
The Flawed Symbolism of 12 Angry Men

But theatricality can too easily be confused with dramatic strength… the jacket, for example, that passes from one crucified figure to another. Such devices do not give meaning, they only give dramatic effect, the look of meaning.

When I first read the above line from Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, my mind was not fixated on On the Waterfront, the film she was referring to, but on another film which also features a quasi-symbolic jacket: Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. 12 Angry Men is one of the great films in cinema history and possibly the greatest film from one of my favorite directors—and yet, whenever I watch it, the final scene does not fill me with satisfaction but with a (perhaps silly, but wholly deep) feeling of frustration. This frustration is inspired by what I consider to be one of the poorest narrative costume decisions in the history of great film. I am, of course, referring to the white suit that Juror Number Eight (played by a wondrous Henry Fonda) wears throughout the movie.

Adapted from a teleplay of the same title written by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men tells the story of a jury deliberation. Twelve men sit and hear a trial of a young man (implied to be an immigrant) from the slums who is being accused of murder. They are then rushed off into a room to take a vote on whether or not the boy is guilty and thus deserving of the death sentence. The first vote comes quickly; the men are ready to get out of the sweltering room and back to their real lives. The case seems pretty cut-and-dried anyway.

One by one, each juror votes. Eleven agree that the defendant is guilty. The one holdout is Juror Number Eight, who is slower to judgment than the rest of the men. Unlike the others, he is not in a rush to go home, he seems uninfluenced by the oppressive heat, and he is unaffected by the impatience and frustration directed at him by his eleven peers. Instead, he seems to be the only man in the room paying attention to the weight of what they’re voting to do.

The film doesn’t immediately frame Juror Number Eight as a hero. In fact, he stands out as a bit of an impractical nuisance in a room full of real men who have better places to be, especially since the kid was clearly guilty anyway. It’s the brilliance of the filmmaking that the transformation of the jury mostly remains subtle and feels earned as Juror Number Eight asks questions until each of the jurors shifts—coming to the conclusion that not only is there not enough evidence to convict the defendant, but that there is no possible way that the testimony against him could have been accurate at all.

From a bird’s eye view, the plot of the film can seem a bit hokey and even a little message-y. But the film is exhilarating, drawing a pure, uncomfortable and very physical (it may be the sweatiest drama of the period) reality out of a fairly simple story. This is why it’s so when—as each juror pulls on his jacket to leave the deliberation room a changed man—Juror Number Eight puts his white jacket back on.


Now, why, you might ask, would a simple white suit cause me so much frustration? And why, even though Fonda wears the suit throughout the film, does it only really annoy me at the film’s ending? Well, at the beginning of the film, the white suit is rarely a focal point, as Fonda is almost always surrounded by men in white shirts. During the course of the deliberation, Fonda too removes his jacket, thus matching the other jury members who are mostly in shirtsleeves because of the heat. It’s only at the end of the film, when all the men leave the room, pulling on their dark suit jackets and exiting the courthouse, that it becomes so clear that Juror Number Eight is set apart visually, indicating a message completely at odds with the greater argument that the film has just spent the bulk of its time making.

This is where Kael’s disparagement of the “look of meaning” comes into my argument, because the jacket’s white symbolism doesn’t fulfill any real narrative purpose. Instead, it plays a symbolic role, imbuing Juror Number Eight’s character with angelic or even Messianic symbolism (Juror Number Eight sat in a hot room with cranky men to absolve them of their sins). What is the effect of Juror Number Eight being set apart actually supposed to do except garner a look of knowing recognition from the audience? And if we do take the meaning of the jacket into our reading, that reading pulls away from the weightiness of the movie.

12 Angry Men is about the complexity of human behavior—how flawed we are, how our impatience, our biases and our own actions can have disastrous effects if we leave them unchecked. It’s also a film about one man making an impact on eleven others (twelve, if you count the defendant) by remaining steadfast and becoming an obstacle to an injustice.

For most of the movie, 12 Angry Men is a wholly realistic film, but with the focus on Juror Number Eight’s white suit, the reality of the film fades. The film becomes allegory. Juror Number Eight becomes symbolic, and his role is not one to be filled by a mere mortal (like the viewer), but one that we must wait to be filled. We have been saved by Henry Fonda; we have not been saved by (nor will we save) ourselves. Fonda’s white jacket sets him apart from the regular men, making him a myth, inserting the magic of an angelic being and, in doing so, destroying the magic of humanity.

To make matters even worse, when looking at a contemporary DVD of the film, the poster image features Henry Fonda standing out in the front of the pack, shining in his bright white suit. The image is at extreme odds with the subtle movement of the film, the slow reveal of his character’s significance. The image makes Fonda special in a movie that is meant to remind us that we are not special—that our selfishness and our belief that our interests are more important than the interests of others leads to the breaking down of community and the birth of tragedy.

Consider the impact of an alternate ending, in which Fonda has not been wearing a white suit, but a darker one, one just like those all of the other men in the film wear. I like to imagine him walking off into the crowded street, towards his own life that exists outside of the jury room, a life that holds his interests and desires, but one that he felt he must set aside for a few hours because he understood that his perspective, his words and his actions could save an innocent man’s life. Fonda isn’t special. He isn’t set apart. He’s just a man like any other man. And he still made a difference. That’s the film that I want 12 Angry Men to be, and we would have gotten it too, if it wasn’t for that white suit’s mere look of meaning.

Tiffany Babb is an essayist, cultural critic, and comics obsessive. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter about art.

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