Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the chronicle of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and forcing into slavery for over a decade is extraordinary. It’s absolutely excellent from the opening shot of a group of slaves, Solomon in the middle, right down to the tear soaked finale. “12 Years a Slave” ends up becoming an education for all audiences, and a form of unjust punishment for Northup who was just beginning to soak up his freedom, and found himself imprisoned back in to a personal hell of slavery, torture, and humiliation. I’ve been a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work since “Melinda and Melinda,” and in “12 Years a Slave” is performance is absolutely astounding.
The real reason to watch 1997’s remake of “12 Angry Men” is to see Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott share the screen once again as they did in the very entertaining remake of “Inherit the Wind.” This time Lemmon replaces Henry Fonda in the role of Juror 8 while Scott is Juror 3. For a film directed by William Friedkin starring twelve very notable and prolific character actors, this version of “12 Angry Men” is very vanilla and absolutely forgettable. Friedkin never quite opts for subtlety with this reworking of the stage play, so he walks around with his camera, and films the teleplay like it’s an episode of “Law & Order.”
“You’re faced with a grave responsibility, ladies and gentlemen…”
One of my favorite scenes of “12 Angry Men” is in fact the opening. Sidney Lumet doesn’t so much provide exposition as he lays out the basic rule of the premise. These twelve men don’t have to abide by story conventions so much as they have to abide by the law and a strict principle about judging someone during this horrible trial. The question soon becomes how far will these men stretch these laws and principals to fit their own agendas? What will keep them biased and subjective in a case that requires a clear thought and analytical mind? The opening shot features the young boy in question transposed over the establishing shot of the empty jury room where his fate lies. He’s a young, minority, juvenile delinquent, with a violent past and his life lies in the hands of twelve strangers. Worse is that these twelve strangers have their own vendettas. His cards are stacked against him immediately since the trial has drawn on for weeks in to the hottest day of the year. The jurors were, presumably, chosen for their ability to put aside their own personal preferences to judge a case, but once Sidney Lumet puts these twelve men in a room together, it soon becomes apparent everyone has arrived with their goals in mind. It’s a group of the worst and best of America.