Written By: Jacob deBlecourt
Smooth highways. Acres of Levittown homes. Father Knows Best on the Philco Predicta. The 1950s is an era filled with signifiers of nostalgia. The slightest mention of the 1950s transports you to a decade of poodle skirts and diners, a decade when the men were men and the women were women, a decade when everybody happily conformed to the same path. In essence, the 1950s was a perfect, glimmering decade nestled in between two eras of hardship and depravity. At least, this is what many think of the 1950s. Exactly how true is this perception? This mid-century decade defies the traditional American mythology, as defined by Robert Ray in A Certain Tendency, and creates its own microcosm of values. While on the surface the 1950s may seem like a simpler and happier time, in reality the mythology of the 1950s is just that—a myth. These competing values are brought to attention in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 movie 12 Angry Men. By using Ray’s concept of the American mythology, 12 Angry Men challenges the glimmering pure perception of the 1950s by revealing the individual biases of the jurors and, in the process, revealing the biases of the set of values of the 1950s as a whole.
Perhaps the most significant tenet of Ray’s mythology is the outlaw hero’s response to politics and the law. What Ray describes as the “general pattern of the American mythology” involves the “denial of the necessity for choice” (63), meaning that the ideal American under Ray’s mythology does not have to make a decision between doing one thing and doing another. This is furthered “by discouraging commitment to any single set of values” (63).
The mythology of the 1950s is entirely different from Ray’s idea of the American mythology.
Instead of discouraging a single set of values, the mythology of the 1950s seems to celebrate and revel in conformity.
In regards to aging, the 50s mythology pushes towards the conformity of maturity. It seemed more and more Americans in the 1950s were resorting to doing more adult things. For example, “between 1945 and 1960, the number of owner-occupied homes nearly doubled” (Carlson, 1). Rather than pushing out and discovering the real world like Ray’s mythological American does, the 50s American discovers the housing market and suburbia. This was the mature and responsible thing to do.
It is in this context that we arrive at the movie 12 Angry Men. In Sidney Lumet’s debut directorial piece, a lone juror must stand against the force of eleven others who wish to sentence a young man to death for murder. While on the surface each character voting guilty seems to have no personal interest in this case, as the movie progresses it is revealed that each of the characters has their own biases which direct their thinking. When Juror #8—the original dissenter in the jury—presents different interpretations of testimony, he begins to reveal the biases of the other jurors. As the other jurors themselves realize these biases, they slowly begin to change their votes. Had they all initially voted guilty, they would never have discovered these biases they keep within themselves.
This emblematic of 1950s itself: once the thin veneer of contentment is peeled away, a seedy and uncomfortable underside is brought out, revealing the worst society can offer.
Juror #10 best represents the difference between the mythology of the 1950s and the reality of the 1950s, especially as it applies to race. Much like this mid-century decade, upon first glance, Juror #10 seems pleasant enough. When learning that the preliminary vote in the jury will be conducted by ballot, he jokes, saying “maybe we can get him elected Senator” (perf. Begley). It wasn’t until Juror #8 began to dissent that Juror #10’s true beliefs came out. In fact, the first thing he said when finding out somebody disagreed with him was “oh boy, there’s always one” (perf. Begley). Soon after that the audience sees Juror #10 switch from a pleasant middle-aged man to a frustrated racist, quick to make assumptions based purely on race. In a more tense moment in the film, he has an outburst, screaming racist notions like “they get drunk… Oh, nobody’s blaming them for it. That’s the way they are, by nature! You know what I mean? Violent!” (perf. Begley). Juror #10 is a perfect representation of the reality of 1950s racism in comparison to the mythology. Instances of race were not brought up in the idyllic 1950s suburbs mostly because suburbs were almost entirely white. However, when black bus riders in the south protested in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, or when nine Little Rock students were forcibly integrated, the white community responded in a force of racism and bigotry. Yet the mythology of the 1950s shirks this aspect of the decade in the same way that, when unprovoked, there was no reason to suspect Juror #10 is racist.
The American mythology, as defined by Robert Ray, portrays the ideal American as someone who defies age, responsibility, and the need for choice. In contrast to this, the mythology of the 1950s celebrates just the opposite. The desire to return to the “good ol’ days of America” when times were simpler really does not make sense. Considering all of the uncertainty, anger, and criminal violence that occurred during the 1950s, it becomes clear that the common perception of this era is false. 12 Angry Men realizes this. This movie challenges the glimmering pure perception of the 1950s by revealing the individual biases of the jurors and, in the process, revealing the biases of the set of values of the 1950s as a whole. 12 Angry Men validates Ray’s perception of the American mythology by discouraging a single set of values and by denying the necessity for choice. While others view this movie as an example of negotiation or as an example of cinematography, it is equally important to note the film’s historical significance to the 50s decade and the 50s mythology. By rejecting the this mythology, 12 Angry Men teaches its viewers to deny inflicted perceptions and to always forge your own path, to always make your own choices.
12 Angry Men. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. E.G Marshall, Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, George Voskovec. Youtube.com. United Artists, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Carlson, Allan C. “The Myth of the Fifties.” Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Educating for Liberty. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Ebert, Roger. “The Searchers Movie Review & Film Summary (1956) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. Rogerebert.com, 25 Nov. 2001. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Haralovich, Mary Beth. Sit-coms and Suburbs: Positioning the 1950s Homemaker. N.p.: U of Minnesota, 1992. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Joltes, Richard E. “Critical Enquiry.” The Myth of Family Values. CRITICAL ENQUIRY, 2007. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Ray, Robert B. “Classic Hollywood’s Formal and Thematic Paradigms.” A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930-1980. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. 25-69. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.