12 ANGRY MEN is a hell of a film. They really don’t make ’em like this anymore. The story is told approximately in real-time, over the course of 2 hours, in a single room. The limited cast is one thing that attracted us to this film for recasting. Besides the bailiff and a glimpse of the suspect, there are hardly any characters other than the 12 jurors. They each have one overriding character trait: From the utterly reasonable Henry Fonda as Juror 8, to the lazy and intellectually inert Juror 7 played by Jack Warden, whose only goal is to kill time in the most entertaining way possible. (essay continues after gif set)
12 Angry Men is all about the greatness of the American system of trial by jury. Reginald Rose wrote the original version for television in 1954, later adapting it for film, as well as stage. Perhaps its most hopeful message is: given evidence, everyone will be persuaded by a logical argument. In the 1957 theatrical version we’ve recast, an all-white, all-male jury is asked to decide whether to convict a young man of color of murdering his father, and all but one of them are in a hurry to send him to the slammer. The suspect’s n00b public defender didn’t do a very good job, Lionel Hutz levels of incompetence, which says everything about the kid’s chances: he’s doomed. You don’t get to see his face when the jury announces they’ve found him not guilty.
The Simpsons have entered the Municipal Fortress of Vengeance on numerous occasions in the first 10 seasons: Marge’s trial for shoplifting, Freddy Quimby’s “Beat Up Waiter” case on which Homer is a juror, Bart’s trial for Principal Skinner’s disappearance, and the prosecution of Mr. Burns for hitting Bart with his car, are just a few of the court-heavy episodes. The Honorable Judge Snyder has presided over most of them. In most cases, only a last-minute eyewitness stops the miscarriage of justice. (essay continues after poster)
We had trouble deciding on certain recastings, and in some cases, to avoid going back to the same rouges gallery of obvious substitutions, we dug deep into the Simpsons’ pool of one-off actors: Diana really wanted Apu to play Juror 11, a European immigrant watchmaker, in the original film. Apu is educated, a naturalized citizen, and takes pains to be polite, which is why she wanted him over JRC’s choice of Bumblebee Man, about whom little is known besides his goofy TV antics (though he does speak with a British accent at one point). It felt obvious that Mr. Bergstrom could take Henry Fonda’s place as the open-minded thoughtful Juror 8, but we’d used him previously, so for contrast decided “Crusty” Dean Peterson would be a good foil against the other old and stodgy members of tribunal. True, you can’t picture Fonda playing bass for The Pretenders, but he’d probably be a good at leading a liberal college program routed in social justice.
When Juror 10 makes one final, desperate appeal to racism and the other men turn their backs, it brings to mind of the scene from The Last Temptation of Krust, where Krusty is losing the audience at an alternative comedy show, so he uses his ace up the sleeve: a flapping dickey and racist impression, which ends up being the last straw for his career (for a while).
One character we barely see but learn a lot about, is the defendant. His story unfolds through proxy: Jack Klugman’s Juror 5 defends the boy’s bleak upbringing. The stereotype of his ethnic background is broken by hard working Juror 11. We also hear about the ugly violent crime he’s accused of, persuasively used by Juror’s 3 and 4 to bolster their decision to convict. Pepi’s neighborhood is a great stand-in for the unseen slum described in 12 Angry Men. Bums sleeping in dumpsters, police sirens, boarded up windows, and cramped dingy hallways with crumbling walls and exposed leaking pipes. It makes the permissive chaos of Evergreen Terrace seem tranquil in comparison, an ivory tower that Juror 4 looks down from as he says, “We’re not here to go into the reasons why slums are breeding grounds for criminals; they are. I know it. So do you. The children who come out of slum backgrounds are potential menaces to society.”
In 12 Angry Men, you’re not certain of the outcome until Juror 3 tears up his family photos and breaks down sobbing. It’s the best possible resolution, but aside from the reassuring presence of Fonda, there isn’t a guarantee the defendant will be found innocent. In fact we really can’t be sure he didn’t do it. Occam’s razor suggests he likely did, but the noble mission of the court is to see if there’s just any reasonable doubt. Luckily in this case someone was willing to do the heavy lifting needed to uncover it—the role Lisa typically plays in the more serious Simpsons episodes.
One of the reasons we chose to recast 12 Angry Men is because the characters are marvelously focused types who test to each other in exciting ways. Like The Simpsons, 12 Angry Men is engaging because it explores characters as they react to a simple high stakes situation. Some of the best episodes of The Simpsons, like Lisa the Vegetarian, or Bart Sells His Soul, ask a straightforward question and wring great emotional action by challenging their initial answer. It’s impressive how much pathos is found in The Simpsons, it is also a key part of the show’s enduring appeal. 12 Angry Men endures not just because it asks an important question, but invites us to join the discussion and question our initial answer as it guides a reasonable discussion.
JRC: I remember reading and acting out the play in 8th grade—not for the public, just for the other students in our English class. It was a fun change from the usual spoon-feeding we had to put up with from our unimaginative teacher. I’d already seen 12 Angry Men on TV a few times on my own, which put me a couple steps ahead of most of my classmates. Still, at 14 years old it didn’t make much of an impression. I think Lee J. Cobb and John Fiedler stood out the most to me, as extreme opposites in personality. Having rewatched it for our recasting, and being so impressed at how convincingly it delivers its message of civic duty, I hope schools still have a place for it somewhere in their curriculum.