Over on the Patreon chat server, our conversations have bubbled up over fifty plus must see movies. And I’m having a bit of a hard time seeing straight as a result actually… thanks for asking. And The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of those movies that bubbled out of those crazy recommendation filled conversations. (You really ought to consider jumping on the Patreon band wagon – it’s pretty great. And if you’d like to ask other THiNC. Patreons if it’s worth it, just shout, and I’ll put you in touch with them.) Let me explain why The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Must See – because if you haven’t already seen it – you should jump it to the top. Like presently.
Maybe I shouldn’t bury the lede. The Trial of the Chicago 7 was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Full stop. And if the name means nothing to you – boy, do I have a pile of treats for you. Like, um, West Wing. All 7 seasons. A Few Good Men? The Social Network? Molly’s Game? Aaron Sorkin is, without a doubt, the king dialog creator. He is the inventor of the walk and talk…you know, those rapid-fire give and take talking sessions that happen through hallways, down stairs, surrounded by people and other chaos…all happening at a staccato clip and a relentless doggedness to the dialog. Always the dialog. Sorkin’s scripts always carry like 5 times the dialog of a normal movie. And it is brilliant writing – always.
Oh. And by the way, it stars, in no particular order: Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong? Just a metric crap ton of enormous actors. And they all come for bear in this one. It’s fun to watch them just lit rip for the cameras. It’s really well played. And that this became a Netflix property just tells you how enormous this global pandemic has become. Just saying.
So, please. Go watch the film over on Netflix. Then come back, and we can talk this through together afterwards.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 Walkthrough
I literally knew nothing about this period of history. I mean, that’s not true. But I just haven’t majored in this section of history. It’s a fascinating moment in America’s past though. It seems almost an inflection point that we might even be going through all over again today. I don’t know. We’ll leave those questions to the end…and discuss it then. But it seems pivotal all the same. So let’s dive in, and unpack this sucker, because I’m fascinated as to what we’ll find.
August, 1968… eight men, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale all, individually, or in a coordinated fashion, begin prepping to protest during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Jump forward five months, and we meet all eight of them in the courthouse where they are, together, being tried with an attempt to incite a riot. And true to Sorkin’s skills, he works us into the beginning of two different distinct moments in time, and works us forward on both timelines simultaneously. Timeline 1, the start of the planning heading into Chicago. Timeline 2, the start of their trials. BUT WHAT HAPPENED? Exactly. Sorkin is intent on telling us what happened to them on both timelines simultaneously.
John Mitchell, the Attorney General (the new Attorney General, to not put too fine a point on it) appoints Tom Foran and Richard Schultz as the prosecution to bring the case to trial. And all the defendants (7 anyway – Seale maintains he has no lawyer! hahaha.) are represented by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass.
Now, the only reason this entire movie even exists is 100% because of the Judge assigned to this case – Judge Julius Hoffman. The man succeeds at doing one thing throughout this fiasco of a trial…and that is showing extreme prejudice from beginning to end. But I have to say, the Judge has more than a little reason to his prejudice. I mean, I did already mention Abbie Hoffman is on trial. (I recently listened to a glorious 2-episode podcast about Hoffman put on by the The Dollop – which is a comedic look at history. You can find that particular podcast right here if you are interested.) And anytime Hoffman is involved, you are going to have craziness, histrionics, and chaos. Seale also is constantly causing his own fireworks with his perpetual allegation that he is being tried without representation. Which, you have to admit, is a cornerstone of our legal system. And before you know it, contempt charges are being thrown out like candy on Halloween.
We watch as the various defendants work inevitably towards Chicago. The permits are requested, but denied. The people are massed, and the parks are crashed, and immediately the local police are on super vigilant high alert. Jumping forward, we watch as cops testify how they worked in an undercover capacity, and they tell of arresting Hayden for letting out the air in their tires. And as a result, Hoffman masses people at the courthouse to protest his arrest. As they are arriving though, they are met by a brigade of police, horses, basically a Roman phalanx of military power. The crowd turns and tries to head back to the park. But when they arrive, there are police there as well. And that is when the riot starts. The question ultimately here is simple enough – who was bristling for a fight? Was it the protestors? Or was it the cops? Sounds like a vaguely similar problem today… no?
Later, during the trial, we learn that Fred Hampton (Seale’s Black Panther advisor absent legal counsel) is killed during a police raid. Understandably, Seale is incensed by this injustice, and continues to interrupt and speak out about his lack of judicial representation. Well, the Judge really isn’t a fan of Seale’s continued interruptions and objections. So, and I am utterly baffled by this life choice on his part, has Seale taken into a back room and beaten. Did I mention Seale is B lack? Right, you remember that part? Yeah. And. even worse…Seale is brought back out to courtroom. He is tied to his chair. And he is gagged.
Let’s Consider This A Moment
My son and I love to study portions of American history that are hidden from normal view. There are million moments to delve into. Like the moment when Conway gathered forces in 1777 to attempt a Cabal. It’s a wild story I won’t get into here…but it’s worth reading about. Let’s just say that it’s an exciting moment in America’s history filled with Steamboat plots to overthrow Washington and his command of the United States. Or, another good example is America’s involvement in the Philippines from 1899-1902. Let’s just say, our involvement was not great. We setup concentration camps of sorts, we retaliated violently, and disproportionately, and our history with water torture found a foothold there. (I wasn’t even aware of our dark history until I looked it up after my first trip there.) Regardless, this moment in history, in this court room here in Chicago, has got to be remembered as one of the darkest, and most inhumane moments of our judicial system. That Seale, who literally did nothing and was there just to speak, would be treated this way, is unconscionable. That these are echoes back to our terrible past of racist and cruel terror against African Americans in this country is even worse. As I watched this happen – I had to stop the movie and find the real accounts of this trial to read and find out exactly what happened. Was this a Sorkin flourish? No. No, it wasn’t. It’s just unbelievable to me.
So, yes, your honor, I would like to have my wild objections to this horrible moment in history objected to. Thank you very much. Well, as a result of the Judge’s action – both the prosecution and the defense oppose the Judge’s order, and finally the Judge agrees to call a mistrial in the case against Seale. Which, in my opinion was the LEAST the Judge could do at this moment for Seale.
Eventually, we learn, fairly pyrotechnically, that defense would have a sympathetic witness in Ramsey Clark. You see, Ramsey Clark was the previous Attorney General during the riots under the previous administration. So? Well…Clark had pulled together a commission to study the events in Chicago regard the riots. And this commission decided that the riots were the result of overzealous police, NOT the result of the protestors. Even so, the Judge refuses to allow the testimony of such a key witness, solely because it would dramatically harm the case of the prosecution. Why? Because it now appears that the arrest of the Chicago 7 is actually a calculated hit job.
Now, as the riot timeline proceeds forwards, we learn that Davis had tried to calm the cops who were trying to arrest someone up a flag pole, but as he was doing so, he was clubbed in the head. Because of this violent attack on his friend, Hayden grabs the mic, and declares, “If blood is gonna flow, then let it flow all over the city!” During the trial, the prosecution made a lot of hay because of the statement, as the prosecution tried to prove that it was Hayden that had called out the vitriolic turn of phrase to incite his fellow protestors to riot. But when Abbie is cross examined, he surmises that Hayden has been taken out of context here. And as he continues to testify, he posits that Hayden has been completely misunderstood. As the trial comes to an end, Hayden uses his closing statement to recite the names of the 4,500 soldiers that perished in the Vietnam war while the trial had continued. This results in the entire court house falling into cheers of support – and the Judge to lose his mind.
A Few Thoughts on the Film
Here are a few names for you – George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.” Yeah. I really am not being political here. This isn’t a Republican or a Democrat ideology I’m considering here. First, people matter. Oh, and by the way, can we also agree that Black people matter? Great, glad we got that out of the way. Now, what about allowing Americans to peacefully protest? If you are unaware of the Constitution, let’s refresher…first, the Constitution rigorously protects freedom of speech. It protects religious expression. And it explicitly protects the press to speak out. (So if you’ve shouted “fake news” recently…you are accidentally trying to hamper someone’s freedom of the press. You just moved further down the authoritarian spectrum.) BUT ALSO, the Constitution protects one’s ability to peaceably assemble. Heck, you and I can get all kinds of pissed off about XYZ (literally doesn’t matter what XYZ is) and head down to the statehouse and petition the Government for redress of said grievances. (Literally. Stole that straight from the Constitution.)
THESE ARE PROTECTIONS THAT ALL AMERICANS SHOULD ADORE, PROTECT, AND FIGHT FOR. THIS SHOULD BE COMMON GROUND.
Hear me here. Mr. Republican, hey there buddy! Mr. Democrat?? Hey there my friend!!! We all should agree to these foundational freedoms. The ability to protest is critical. Freedom of speech? 100% foundational. Please remove Trump from your mind here as we are talking about this stuff. Literally. Set him aside. Or don’t actually. The reason he can say literally anything he wants has nothing to do with the fact that he’s president…but more to do with the fact that he’s an American, and we all can. And protecting that right is so very critical. Now, back in 1968, these seven men (eight really) were attacked for trying to assemble, speak, and peacefully petition the Government for redress. Literally, they believed the government shouldn’t be in Vietnam. But that is neither here, nor there, right now. And today, people all across America similarly are attempting to be heard by their government, to have their concerns redressed. Whether you agree with them or not, we should all support their ability to do so. Why? Because it is foundational to our American EXPERIMENT. The moment we lose these foundational rights, is the moment this experiment is over. And trust me, you can search through history to support this statement, America is not a given. More stable governments, and more stable enterprises have toppled for less foundational issues. (Oh, I don’t know, the empires of Rome, Greece, and the Babylonians, maybe?)
When George Floyd was murdered, and the people responsible were not held accountable for their actions, it should be allowed that protestors will have something to say about that. (But they burnt stuff, and hurt people – then those people go to jail for burning stuff and hurting people. And they also yelled a lot, and said things I don’t like! Yeah, let’s put our big boy pants on, because that is legal. Very legal.) I promise you that if a Black cop struggled with an affluent white person who had been caught shoplifting, and held his neck on the white person’s throat so long that they died…there would be hell to pay for that. Why is this any different? Is it different because Floyd is African American? It’s just literally untenable. But the specific thing that protestors want to protest doesn’t matter. When I worked on Capitol Hill for a Senator there, every single day, I would see protestors at the Senate office buildings, the Capitol building, the White house. This is fantastic! This is what you are supposed to do. Every single day, the Senator would ask for the number of letters, emails, and calls for or against a specific issue that was being brought up on the Senate floor later that week. Your voice literally matters. I worked with constituents for the Senator about wild and crazy issues. Labeling on various gas tanks (a grandson died huffing something), gun rights (robber, and a accidental death), church protections (taxation questions), just all manner of issues. I still remember each one years later. But it is our right to have appeal the government for redress.
Sorkin has brought us a fantastic tableau of our past…that is very far from being in our past. It is more in our present than it has ever been. And we would do well to learn from this moment. Repent of our authoritarian ways. And figure out how we can allow freedom of speech, and freedom to assemble live peacefully in parallel with the rest of our nation’s important life’s blood. It feels as though we have forgotten how important political dissent is to the nation’s dialog. Yes, talk to someone you disagree with. Cross the aisle, and find a way to enjoy a middle ground. Polarization is the exactly wrong way for the country to go. Things are not black and white. They are a million shades of grey. And if you think there is your way, or the highway, you prove yourself to be the ignoramus that you really are.
Sorry. If the things I’m saying hurt, or are causing you to want to hit the comment button below to flame me…think again. Maybe it’s you that needs to have a change of heart. Maybe…just maybe, you can be the one to learn in this particular instance. Huh. That would be a miracle. Wouldn’t it? (I’m totally getting flamed for this one, aren’t I? yeah.) Regardless, that is why The Trial of the Chicago 7 Jumped Your Must See List. And even if you disagree, it should be seen far and wide.
Edited by: CY