by Karen Topakian
The other night, my partner Peg and I watched this 1957 Sydney Lumet classic about 12 jurors. All men. Who must determine the guilt of a young man accused of killing his father.
All but three minutes of this 96-minute film take place in a 16 by 24 foot jury room. On a day that is predicted to be the hottest on record. Each of the three windows sits closed unless two men can heave them up open. The single wall-mounted fan remains still. And the stifling New York City heat permeates. They sweat and sit and talk; pontificate, lecture and question and accuse until they reach a unanimous verdict.
Twelve men without names, only numbers. Most of them wearing white shirts ties and jackets. All walked in the room prepared to vote guilty. Except one.
One who isn’t sure. One who wants to talk about it. One who believes that with a young man’s life hanging in the balance, the least they can do is discuss it. This juror, number 8, raises a few questions. Some things don’t sit right with him. He’s not completely sure. He doesn’t think the prosecution’s evidence stacks up quite so neatly. The discussion begins: despite the hoots and hollers of those who are truly committed to the young man’s guilt. Either by the evidence or by their own prejudices about “people like him.”
The story is a simple one with a strong message. Number 8, played by Henry Fonda, simply asks questions. Employing a mild mannered tone without affect or animosity. With fortitude and conviction, he is leadership in action. The unanimous vote unravels.
The courage of his one voice requires examination. How many times have we served on committees or boards or juries or even amongst friends and family where a decision was made without a voice raised to oppose, to question, to discuss?
How many of us went along because we didn’t want to take the time or waste time. Didn’t want to be the lone voice or weren’t sure of what we thought, so said nothing.
Most of our group decisions aren’t made with a young life on the line. But if they were would we be ready and able to speak up if we never had before?