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Cultural Tensions in 1950s Hollywood Film - Essay Example

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Cultural Tensions in 1950s Hollywood Film

As America emerged from the darkest days of the “Red Scare”, which saw the Hollywood film community intimidated by politicians, it was considered risky at best to undertake a thoughtful and soul-searching study of American political institutions and society. It is the thesis of this essay that Twelve Angry Men uses the instruments of American government and culture to effectively combat just these prejudices and bigotries. The film zeroes in on the New York of the 1950’s, the scene of a massive influx of Puerto Rican immigration in the years since the Second World War ended. There was considerable backlash by older immigrant stock both resentful and fearful of the newcomers. This tendency is frequently found today in soft areas of cultural intrusion and the perception of threat—whether real or imaginary—by the “invaders.” Such borderline xenophobia is of course not confined to America in that decade, but it seemed to present a crisis at the local level at that time. It is into this setting that Twelve Angry Men is embedded. A Puerto Rican youth is accused of patricide in the stabbing death of his father, and it is his misfortune to come before a jury of largely apathetic or overtly racist men to hear the case. The film uses the sterilised laboratory of the American courtroom and jury deliberation room in the relentless search for objectivity and ultimate truth. Since this is a capital murder case, it is also a life or death decision for the defendant, the death penalty then being the punishment for the guilty. Whilst this would seem to demand the utmost care and commitment of the men on the panel, in fact the opposite happens. They range from the apathetic and even jovial to annoyance and boredom at the proceedings. Thus, there is also a subordinated theme of indifference to this highest of civic duties. Into this vacuum steps Davis, a man who seems to take his duties seriously. Disturbed at what he interpreted as a weak defence for the accused, he is the sole holdout as the poll goes around the room, voting “not guilty”. The other panelists have already determined the young man’s guilt, but Davis wants to “talk”; that is, he wants to open a dialogue box to try to find the truth. In this, he is after all only discharging his constitutional obligation to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. After this first polling, he gradually wins over one by one his fellow panelists, but it is not easy. Davis does not pretend to have all the answers, only probing questions to find the truth in the shadow of prejudice. In perhaps the most trenchant bit of dialogue in the script, Davis confronts the most blatantly bigoted member of the group after eyewitness testimony by a Puerto Rican woman throws some doubt on the deliberations. “She’s one of them, isn’t she?” he demands of the bigot. “You’re a pretty smart fella, aren’t you?” the man replies, and then mutters to the others, “what’s he getting so smart about?” Possibly for the first time in his life, he has had his thought processes stimulated by a stranger. Soon, he changes his verdict as well. But Davis is far from arrogant in his search for objective truth. In another memorable scene in the water closet, another man confronts Davis and plants the seed of doubt in his mind. “How do you know the kid didn’t really knife his father?” ...Show more
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Summary

Warda Rahman Professor Jennifer Hammett CINE 0373-01 9 May 2013 Objective Truth versus Prejudice in Twelve Angry Men Films never occur in a complete vacuum; they inevitably reflect the culture around them. They usually mirror social and political reality, although they also tend to exaggerate the truth for the sake of entertainment…
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