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The trial of the Chicago Seven begins before Judge Julius Hoffman. Initially there were eight defendants (and the group was known as the Chicago Eight), but one, Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, denounced Hoffman as a racist and demanded a separate trial. The seven other defendants, including David Dellinger of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE); Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden of MOBE and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); and Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party (Yippies), were accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
At the height of the antiwar and civil rights movements, these young leftists had organized protest marches and rock concerts at the Democratic National Convention. During the event, clashes broke out between the protesters and the police and eventually turned into full-scale rioting, complete with tear gas and police beatings. The press, already there to cover the Democratic convention, denounced the overreaction by police and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s handling of the situation.
The Chicago Seven were indicted for violating the Rap Brown law, which had been tagged onto the Civil Rights Bill earlier that year by conservative senators. The law made it illegal to cross state lines in order to riot or to conspire to use interstate commerce to incite rioting. President Johnson’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark, refused to prosecute the case.
READ MORE: 7 Reasons Why the Chicago 8 Trial Mattered
Shortly after the trial began, Seale loudly protested by attempting to examine his own witnesses. Judge Hoffman took the unusual measure of having Seale bound and gagged at the defendant’s table before eventually separating his trial and sentencing him to 48 months in prison.
With encouragement from defense attorney William Kunstler, the seven other defendants did whatever they could to disrupt the trial through such acts as reading poetry and chanting Hare Krishna. While the jury was deliberating their verdict, Judge Hoffman held the defendants in contempt of court for their behavior and sentenced them to up to 29 months in jail. Kunstler received a four-year sentence, partly for calling Hoffman’s court a “medieval torture chamber.” Five of the Chicago Seven were convicted of lesser charges.
In 1970, the convictions and contempt charges against the Chicago Seven were overturned on appeal. Abbie Hoffman remained a well-known counterculture activist until his death in 1989. Tom Hayden went on to a career in politics (and marriage to actress Jane Fonda). He died in 2016.
READ MORE: Protests of the Vietnam War
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Chicago Seven, group of political activists who were arrested for their antiwar activities during the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. A series of riots occurred during the convention, and eight protest leaders— Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, cofounders of the Youth International Party (Yippies) Tom Hayden, cofounder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale, the only African American of the group David Dellinger and Rennie Davis of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) and John Froines and Lee Weiner, who were alleged to have made stink bombs—were tried on charges of criminal conspiracy and incitement to riot.
Numerous antiwar and antiestablishment groups had converged in Chicago for the convention to protest U.S. participation in the Vietnam War as well as other government policies. The groups participating included SDS, the Yippies, the Black Panthers, and MOBE. Rioting and violence erupted sporadically between August 25 and August 29 as Chicago police, armed with tear gas and billy clubs, tried to enforce 11 pm curfews in the city’s parks (where many of the young protesters planned to camp out) and faced down protesters marching in the streets. Hundreds were arrested, including the “Chicago Eight” (soon to be Seven).
The trial took place in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and lasted five months, from September 24, 1969, to February 18, 1970. From the beginning, many observers found Judge Julius Hoffman to be far short of impartial toward the defendants. Hoffman, for example, rejected many of the pretrial motions of the defense counsel but granted those made by the prosecution. Similarly, during the trial his procedural rulings nearly always favoured the prosecution. Despite the judge’s hostility, Hayden hoped to win the trial by observing courtroom decorum and logically refuting the prosecution’s case. Many of the other defendants, however, especially Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, deliberately disrupted the trial by eating jelly beans, making faces, blowing kisses, wearing outlandish clothing, and cracking jokes. At one point, Judge Hoffman had Seale bound and gagged for allegedly calling the judge a “fascist dog,” a “pig,” and a “racist.” Seale was eventually tried alone and sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court.
At the trial’s conclusion a jury of 10 whites and two African Americans acquitted all seven remaining defendants—the so-called “Chicago Seven”—of the conspiracy charges. However, they found Hoffman, Rubin, Dellinger, Davis, and Hayden guilty of crossing state boundaries with the intent to incite a riot. Froines and Weiner were acquitted of all charges. Judge Hoffman sentenced the other five defendants to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and he sentenced all seven defendants, plus their attorney William Kunstler, to prison terms for contempt of court. The contempt convictions were reversed on appeal in 1972, and, in a separate appeal that same year, all the criminal convictions except Seale’s were also overturned. The appellate court cited, in part, the judge’s “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense.”
After the success of their appeal, the Chicago Seven went their separate ways. Hayden became active in California politics. Abbie Hoffman went into hiding during the 1970s to avoid prison on a cocaine charge he eventually emerged in 1980 and served a year. Rubin became a businessman and worked on Wall Street in the 1980s. Dellinger, the oldest of the Chicago Seven—at age 54 in 1968—continued his work as a peace activist. Davis became a public speaker on motivation and self-awareness, Froines taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Weiner remained an activist, primarily on behalf of Jewish causes. The eighth defendant, Seale, became a writer and lecturer and continued to work against racism.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Jeff Wallenfeldt, Manager, Geography and History.
Jerry Rubin Was Not Honey-Potted By A Female Agent
Caitlin Fitzgerald's character, Agent Daphne Fitzgerald, was invented for The Trial of the Chicago 7, as Jerry Rubin was not really seduced by a female undercover agent. There were three intelligence agents who infiltrated the protesters and testified during the trial, and the closest equivalent to Daphne in real life was Robert Pierson, who became a bodyguard for Rubin. Pierson grew his hair and beard out for his undercover role, dressing up as a biker and blending in with members of a motorcycle gang (his court transcript contains the memorable statement, "I was with a fellow known as Gorilla who headed a motorcycle gang, and another fellow by the name of Banana"). Thanks to his position as Rubin's bodyguard, Pierson was able to overhear and later repeat many of the conversations among the "Yippies."
Hoffman’s treatment of race
Hoffman&rsquos flaws were perhaps most pronounced in his dealings with race and with regard to the defendant Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Black Panther co-founder who had little to no connection at all to the other defendants. Whenever anyone in the courtroom referenced race, Hoffman bristled: &ldquoI don&rsquot think it is proper for a lawyer to refer to a person’s race,&rdquo he told Kunstler when the lawyer observed that only Black spectators were being thrown out of the courtroom.
Early on, Hoffman refused to let Seale either have his preferred lawyer or represent himself, and then admonished and silenced him when Seale said his constitutional rights were being violated. On Oct. 29, when Seale lost his temper and called him a &ldquorotten racist pig racist liar,&rdquo Hoffman responded: &ldquoLet the record show the tone of Mr. Seale&rsquos voice was one of shrieking and pounding on the table and shouting.&rdquo When Kunstler pointed out that the prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had also shouted, Hoffman defended him, saying, &ldquoIf what he said was the truth, I can&rsquot blame him for raising his voice.&rdquo
Shortly thereafter, Seale was dragged out of the courtroom by half a dozen marshals and came back bound and gagged. &ldquoHis eyes and the veins in his neck and temples were bulging with the strain of maintaining his breath,&rdquo Tom Hayden is quoted as writing in Jon Weiner’s book Conspiracy in the Streets. &ldquoAs shocking as the chains and gag were, even more unbelievable was the attempt to return the courtroom for normalcy.&rdquo
While the film depicts Schultz immediately calling for a mistrial for Seale after his shackling, Seale would in reality remain bound and gagged in court for three days. During that time, Hoffman lashed out after being accused of discrimination, saying to Kunstler, &ldquoI lived a long time and you are the first person who has ever suggested that I have discriminated against a Black man.&rdquo Seale’s trial was eventually declared a mistrial. He was convicted of 16 counts of contempt of court, leading to a four-year prison sentence, but the charges were later dismissed.
As for the other seven defendants, five were convicted for inciting riots. However, a different judge overturned all convictions partially based on Judge Hoffman&rsquos biases, and the Justice Department decided not to retry the case.
The Chicago 7: A timeline of the protests, the clashes, the trial and the fallout
The Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago in August 1968, in the summer of a tumultuous year. The events of that month, and a subsequent court case, are the subject of the new Aaron Sorkin movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
The year 1968 was a year of increasing protests against the Vietnam War, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and subsequent unrest, including in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhoods.
The convention was held over four days at the International Amphitheatre on Hasted Street on the South Side. Between Aug. 26-29, the Democratic Party would select Hubert Humphrey as its candidate for the presidential election the following November. (Incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson had withdrawn Humphrey would be defeated in the election by Richard Nixon.)
Before and during the convention, rallies and protests were held in downtown lakefront parks, including Grant Park several miles away from the convention site, mostly about American involvement in Vietnam under LBJ. Some were organized by the Yippies, the Youth International Party founded by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and a few friends and known for their street theater-style protests in New York. Another organizer was the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (aka MOBE).
In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley said repeatedly that “law and order will be maintained” during the convention. Protesters were denied permits to march in the Loop and near the Amphitheatre. Smaller protests and demonstrations in the days leading up to the convention ended with police intervention, including a Yippie-led “nomination” of a pig for president in Civic Center plaza Aug. 23.
The city granted permission for a single afternoon rally in Grant Park on Aug. 28. That rally drew a crowd of several thousand, with a number of protesters afterwards moving into the Loop. They were stopped by police and the National Guard in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, where the presidential candidates and their campaigns were headquartered. The ensuing clash with police was televised nationwide, with Americans treated to images of tear gas filling the evening air and chaotic and bloody clashes between young protestors and the police, alternating with coverage of Humphrey’s nomination.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 Sheds Light On America's History Of Protest
"The script didn’t change to mirror the times, the times changed to mirror the script," director Aaron Sorkin says of the 2020 parallels.
Aaron Sorkin is known for his political dramas. Between The West Wing, The Newsroom, and Charlie Wilson's War — Sorkin's works have come to define our standards for political-centric entertainment. And his latest film, Netflix's The Trial of the Chicago 7, is no exception.
In 1968, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. At the time, the country was ripe with tension — from the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-Vietnam War protests — and people were taking to the streets. The Trial of the Chicago 7 chronicles this time period, honing in one particular protest that grew into a riot and ultimately resulted in a violent clash with police. As Esquire writes of the protest, "The riots themselves started [in August], when several thousand protestors tried to march to the International Amphitheatre, where the Democratic National Congress was being held. The summer of 1968 had been the bloodiest yet in Vietnam more than 1,000 American soldiers were dying each month."
In the end, a federal grand jury indicted eight demonstrators and eight police officers in response to the violence. The demonstrators were Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The cast also includes Joseph Gordon Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz, Michael Keaton as Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and Mark Rylance as defender Willam Kunstler.
Given our country's current political climate, the film couldn't be more timely — despite the fact that the project began over a decade ago. As Sorkin details in the film's press notes, the idea for The Trial Of The Chicago 7 came out of a meeting with Steven Spielberg in 2007. "Steven told me he really wanted to make a movie about this crazy conspiracy trial that happened in Chicago in 1969, and I said, 'Wow, I’ve wanted to write a movie about this crazy conspiracy trial that happened in Chicago in 1969 for a long time. Count me in,'" Sorkin recalled. "As soon as I got in my car I called my father, and said, 'Dad, was there a crazy conspiracy trial that happened in Chicago in 1969?' I didn’t know anything about it.'"
Sorkin ultimately ended up making the film without Spielberg, and the result is an incredibly prescient portrait of our country's history of protesting. "The script didn’t change to mirror the times, the times changed to mirror the script," Sorkin also shared in the press notes. "Watching the footage every night of protestors clashing with police, it looks exactly like 1968. Even the intramural struggle between the more moderate and more progressive wings of the Democratic Party seem to mirror the friction."
'The Trial of the Chicago 7' Weaves Our Painful History With Jokes!
Aaron Sorkin is not the man you go to for historical accuracy or reverence in your movies and television shows. It shouldn’t have to be said, especially as narrative films and television in general don’t — and can’t — fill that need, but Sorkin in particular is too often mistaken for a wannabe historian or educator when in reality he’s “merely” an entertainer. His latest work seemingly guaranteed to rile those on both the Right and the Left is the new Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Its plea for liberty will upset some while its frequent liberties will annoy others, but if you can get past political leanings and Sorkin’s love for his own writing the film delivers where it matters most — as eye-opening entertainment.
“A Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state,” says a somber Walter Cronkite in archival news footage from 1968. “There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.” The convention should have been home to conversation and peaceful protests, but it instead erupts into violence thanks in large part to the orders of a vindictive mayor and the actions of aggressively violent police officers. (Sorry, that’s redundant.) Richard Nixon’s incoming justice department orders the arrest and prosecution of several men to be charged under the untested and racially motivated Rap Brown Law which makes it a crime to conspire and cross state lines. The men were tagged as The Chicago 7 — or more accurately, The Chicago 8 — and it’s their journey through an imperfect and highly flawed legal system that finds life here.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Sorkin’s ninth feature as writer but only his second directorial effort. It’s a more cinematic outing than Molly’s Game (2017), but his director’s eye is still never the film’s strong suit. Instead, it’s his script, the cast, and the glimpse into one of the United States’ less flattering chapters that makes for an entertaining watch that might just double as an informative one too. Audiences will laugh along with the wit and humor, and the odds are good that many of them will learn a thing or two along the way too.
As mentioned at the top, Sorkin isn’t a filmmaker who feels bound by historical accuracy in his writing even while telling stories about real people and events. His last five films are fictional depictions of biographical accounts — Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Social Network (2010), Moneyball (2011), Steve Jobs (2015), and Molly’s Game — and while their entertainment value varies so do the facts on display. Sorkin champions wordplay and wit over those pesky facts, but that’s only a deal-breaker for viewers who let it be. To be clear, it’s an understandable deal-breaker, but if you can get past that, Sorkin’s latest offers a damning glimpse into our recent past that holds up a sad mirror to today’s tumultuous America. That it does so while being entertaining and laugh out loud funny is no small feat.
The trial was an uphill battle for the accused and their lawyers (Mark Rylance, Ben Shenkman) — the judge (Frank Langella) was old, conservative, and possibly incompetent, the prosecutors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.C. MacKenzie) were intent on sending a message, and the full weight of the U.S. government was pressing on their backs. They were on trial for carrying “certain ideas across state lines” with a law established to prevent African Americans from gathering in dissent, and the argument that these protestors were interested only in violence is a lie that’s still told today. Too many Americans are unaware of this, and as similar events unfold across our televisions in the year 2020 it’s a reminder that’s absolutely, and sadly, necessary.
Sorkin’s script is vibrant and alive, and he’s assembled a talented pool of players to bring these real people to fictional life in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen play Youth International Party leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, respectively, and while both actors are ten to fifteen years older than their characters were at the time that detail doesn’t hurt the effect generated by their skill and charisma. Students for a Democratic Society leaders Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden are played by Alex Sharp and Eddie Redmayne, the latter with a slightly distracting actor affectation that sees his left shoulder constantly slumping, and John Carroll Lynch plays noted pacifist David Dellinger.
Bobby Seale, the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, played a supporting role in the real-world case as prosecutors added him into the mix despite there being no evidence he was associated with the others — hence the distinction for some between the Chicago 7 and the Chicago 8. Seale’s presence was of great importance, though, and that comes through in Yahya Abdul-Mateen II‘s performance. While other characters are a bit showy, Seale is a more serious man fighting for even greater stakes, and Abdul-Mateen delivers a charismatically imposing figure who reminds people that this nation’s sins started long before the 60s. Sorkin captures the moment in which Seale was literally bound and gagged during the trial, and while he shortens the true duration dramatically for more immediate effect it remains an unavoidably powerful sequence.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays fast and loose with minor facts and biographical details in exchange for a well-paced and entertaining watch. The big truths, though, are all here, and they paint a deservedly critical picture of a government terrified of dissent by its people and of losing control. It was a sad and bitter pill to swallow in the late 60s, but it’s a far more depressing truth to see how little things have changed over half a century later.
‘Chicago 7’ makes its case but trial’s Jewish history stricken from the record
NEW YORK — Nobody likes a hung jury. Either set the guy free or send him to the chair! But my reaction to Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is big — the movie has occupied an enormous amount of real estate in my mind — and I still can’t really tell you if I adore it or despise it. I know that the fundamental job of a critic is to make either an up- or down-thumb gesture, but this one has me vexed. I call a mistrial!
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is based on the conspiracy case in which the Nixon administration tried to “put the 1960s on trial.” As a film, it is a strong alignment of artist and repertoire.
Aaron Sorkin, whose career began as a playwright, is one of the few writers of dialogue working today with enough of an imprimatur to have a recognizable cadence. Perfected over seven seasons of “The West Wing,” then deployed in films like “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs,” and “Molly’s Game,” Sorkin’s characters don’t really speak like human beings, but say the things we all wish we were clever enough to think of in the middle of a heated conversation. Moreover, he is an old school capital L liberal, and his ciphers are always eager to pontificate about the better angels of our nature.
A courtroom setting in which someone like Eddie Redmayne portrays youthful anti-war activist Tom Hayden and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II brims with righteous fury as Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, opposite a harrumphing conservative judge played by Frank Langella, is simply too perfect.
For Sorkin to soak himself in 50-year-old political specifics then draw a direct line to issues of “today” is pure catnip. He does so in ways that are clean, like a slick opening montage that introduces the many characters by having them finish each other’s sentences using the “Merry Christmas … and a Happy New Year” technique from “Citizen Kane.”
But he can also be clunky. All the music cues are anachronistic. Some of the terms weren’t used back then and are clearly meant to echo Donald Trump. And, importantly, the hokey group hug at the end (which I won’t spoil) isn’t just fake in tone, it is provably false in actions. Trial transcripts are easy to find online.
I happen to come to this film with a high degree of familiarity with the subject matter — the conspiracy trial that took place after the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. No, the fact that my name is Hoffman does not mean I am a relative of Abbie Hoffman, leader of the Yippie movement, and one of the titular Chicago 7. (And here’s an added bonus: my mother’s maiden name is Rubin, same as Jerry Rubin, Hoffman’s co-defendant.) I’m also not related to Judge Julius Hoffman, who, as he himself points out to the jury, is not related to the longhair radical sitting in the dock. “Father, no!” Hoffman famously cried out for laughs when he made this distinction, one of the many disruptions during the trial that led to a slew of contempt charges (all of which were eventually overturned).
That moment of repartee is in Sorkin’s film, and volleyed marvelously between Sacha Baron Cohen and Frank Langella. Hearing that Abbie Hoffman, the ultimate tummler of counter-culture politics, would be played by Baron Cohen brought sky-high expectations for this movie. And he’s very good. (Okay, he didn’t quite nail the accent, but no human before or since ever quite spoke with Hoffman’s specific THC-enhanced Boston dialect.)
But throughout it all, Sorkin seems like he’s holding Baron Cohen back. And after watching the movie twice I realized what it is: this incredibly Jewish story has been significantly de-Judaized.
The Chicago trial was a manifestation of Nixon’s pledge to “restore law and order.” Ridiculous charges were fabricated about conspiring to cross state lines with intent to create a riot. The government initially accused eight men, including Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panthers Dave Dellinger, an elder statesman conscientious objector Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, two leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society two additional guys (one Jewish) who just kinda got caught up in the crossfire and two very flamboyant Jews.
The loudmouths, the center of attention, the clowns of the court, and the ones the press stayed focused on were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. And they were proud to be boisterously Jewish.
Defending them (well, not defending Seale, which is a whole can of worms that ultimately led to Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom, then stripped away for his own trial) were two Jewish lawyers, William Moses Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. The Judge, as mentioned, was Jewish. And one of the two prosecutors, Richard Schultz, was Jewish.
The high concentration of Jews in this story is something impossible to ignore, especially for 1969/70, yet Aaron Sorkin, who is Jewish, not only ignores it, he even obscures it.
In the real trial there was a lot of shouting back and forth between the defendants (and attorney Kunstler) and the Judge. They called him a fascist. They referred to his marshals as Gestapo. Rubin raised his arm in salute and shouted “Heil Hitler” and, in what perhaps may be the only time the phrase was used in Federal court, Hoffman called the Judge “a shonda fur die Goyim” (an embarrassment to the Jews). None of this is in the film.
Famously, Hoffman and Rubin, known to use costumes throughout their career as street theater activists/pests, came to the courtroom one day in black robes to match Judge Hoffman. This moment is in the movie, but what we don’t see is that in real life they had also affixed yellow Jewish stars. The point is that all the defendants were being tried because of the ideas they had and how they identified. The Yippies were (Groucho) Marxists.
The only thing explicitly Jewish in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is when Abbie Hoffman takes the stand and gives his name, but adds his grandfather was originally called Shaboznikov. “He was a Russian Jew protesting anti-Semitism,” he tells Judge Hoffman, “so he was assigned a name that would sound like yours.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, he never said it. It’s Sorkin’s artistic license to use this exchange to differentiate the earthy and righteous Abbie Hoffman from the cruel, sealed-off Julius Hoffman. Those of us who study this sort of thing might extrapolate that Sorkin is drawing a distinction between Russian Jews in mid-20th century America and the (usually) more wealthy German Jews. But I don’t really think so.
I’ve found, even living in New York City, that my more easygoing Gentile friends who harbor no animosity to Jews will regularly speak the phrase, “Oh, I didn’t know he was Jewish.” It doesn’t mean that they suddenly have a new slant or opinion on someone, it just means that they aren’t thinking about Jews in their midst and do not care. My point is that there will be people watching this movie without realizing that seven of the characters are Jews, up until the point Sacha Baron Cohen says this line.
Additionally, they might even think that Judge Hoffman, played by Frank Langella (not a Jew), is not supposed to be Jewish. “A name that would sound like yours,” as Baron Cohen says, may very well come off to someone not on the right wavelength as, “Oh, I guess Hoffman isn’t always a Jewish name!” (And as a Jewish Hoffman, I can assure you, that is true.)
For what it is worth, of the seven Jewish characters in this film, only Abbie Hoffman is played by someone who is “famously” Jewish. In addition to Langella’s Judge Hoffman, Jerry Rubin is played by Jeremy Strong (who, unless my research is incorrect, is not Jewish), and William Kunstler is played by British actor Mark Rylance (not Jewish). Jewish actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Noah Robbins, and Ben Shenkman play prosecutor Richard Schultz, defendant Lee Weiner, and attorney Leonard Weinglass.
Personally, this doesn’t bother me too much I’m of the school that actors are playing pretend, which is why I’m buying a ticket for Gal Gadot’s “Cleopatra” even if movie theaters no longer exist when it is completed.
What I do find upsetting is how Sorkin has goofed on this opportunity to tell a story about our recent past that is so very important to our present moment, and tell it while showing how Jews were fighting for social justice front-and-center. I can’t know Sorkin’s decision to sand down the material so much, and I’m not suggesting there is any malicious intent, but it is, on a very fundamental level, extremely disappointing.
What’s more, from an entertainment perspective, he blew it. How much better would this movie be if Sacha Baron Cohen were yelling in Yiddish?! Not only that, he skipped the part where Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg took the witness stand and chanted “OMMMMMMM” until the judge ordered him to stop. That just would have been good comedy.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” still has that speedy Sorkin patter that many of us crave, and might also rouse some sleepyheads into realizing that what’s happening in 2020 shares a lot in common with 1968. How the gavel will come down still remains to be seen.
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Review: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’
While this isn’t quite the ideal Black History Month watch, The Trial of the Chicago 7covers a very real history of protesting in America from the perspective of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protestors. While these protests looked very different from the ones America saw in the summer of 2020, protestors risked their lives to have their voices heard in protest against the Vietnam War. With a mostly white ensemble cast, there are still themes that emphasize the racism of this time and in this specific trial. The film, while criticized for not being completely accurate to the real trial from 1969, tells the story of the seven white men held responsible for the Chicago riots in 1968. In the same trial (according to the film), Bobby Seal, (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was tried without legal counsel for the majority of the trial, charged with several accounts of Contempt of Court, and was bound and gagged in the courtroom for his “misbehavior.” The film focuses on the seven white men who were actually responsible for causing the riots and comments on the extreme racism present through the trial by using Bobby Seal as a type of scape-goat. The re-living of this historic trial through this film is relevant to current politics and disturbingly enjoyable to watch due to the excellent performances from the ensemble cast. If you like a juicy courtroom drama, this film will definitely scratch that itch in a really chilling manner.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, this well-crafted ensemble film perfectly cast two all-star actors in the two most interesting roles in the film. With Sascha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party (aka “Yippies) and Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, founder of the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), there were definitely some excellent performances sprinkled throughout this film. While some of the ensemble scenes had all the white men on trial blending together, these two stars, given their important roles in the screen-play and the trial, stood out often. Other standout performances were by the Lawyer representing the Chicago 7, William Kunstler, played by Mark Rylance as well as a defense attorney representing the people, Richard Schultz played by THE Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The opposition between the Chicago 7 and the people was very layered and the attorney Richard Schultz’s character fell into an interesting theme of good vs. evil while he questioned his ability to win this case. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s performance as Bobby Seal was definitely notable but not nearly the center-piece of the film. Part of me wished for more character involvement from the only BIPOC actor in the principal cast, but alas this was a movie about white men, so this wasn’t expected.
The most noteworthy element of this film for me was the screenplay. I think the source material of the actual trial as well as other documentation from the riots and interviews with the 7 was a really excellent catalyst for Sorkin’s work on this screen-play however, he diverges from it almost completely. According to an article by Jason Bailey of the New York Times, “Sorkin diverges markedly from the transcripts, and though trace elements of the text remain, he mostly rewrites the events in (and out of) the courtroom with his distinctive, fast-paced, rat-tat-tat voice. (This is merely an observation, not a complaint he’s a better writer than most people are speakers.)” And I would have to agree that Sorkin’s excellent writing overpowers my interest in watching a verbatim political drama. The snark and wit that he gifts to these real men are truly complementary to their protagonist counterpart characters in this film. The emphasis Sorkin put on Bobby Seal’s lack of representation by a lawyer justifies his actions of acting out in the courtroom and makes the racism of the time as well as in the trial an important piece of the puzzle, rather than just a side note.
Another huge piece of this film that I believe was successful was the incorporation of the protest scenes throughout the trial. Sorkin makes you wait for these scenes and doesn’t just give them to you from the get-go. The film is centered around the trial with carefully placed flashes to the actual protests, which happened the year before the trial took place. The realities of protesting are brought to the screen without any censorship with clips from the actual protests in 1968 weaved in carefully. Sorkin really did not hold back on giving us all the real harsh realities of protesting including the horrifying effects of tear-gas, nightsticks, and even a protestor being sexually assaulted by men with opposing views. I think this approach in creating empathy towards protestors who, even now, are seen by some as violent attention-seeking hippies. The seriousness and dedication that protestors are giving towards their cause in pretty much any scenario become clear in The Trial of the Chicago 7 with really bloody scenes that depict police brutality (towards mostly white people). While I know that the Black population of America has experienced police brutality more seriously than any other group, I think that this depiction specifically could get more white people to believe how systemic the problems of brutality are. The protest scenes in this film were shocking and extremely well choreographed to the point where they immersed me in those moments completely.
Overall, this film was a wonderful piece of political theatre. The drama of the courtroom paired with the intense protests that are shockingly similar to what we still see in the streets today was well written, excellently performed, and extremely relevant. This film was not the first time that this story has been told, and it probably won't be the last. It was provocative and important, but not revolutionary by any means. I think that the general exposure and normalization of protesting is positive and will hopefully create less opposition to our basic freedoms of speech and protest going forward.
On Demand: ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ reminds us history repeats itself
This week, we look at a remarkable new release available for streaming later this week.
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"The Trial of the Chicago 7": While it feels as though we are currently in an unprecedented time in history for political upheaval and distrust in government, the new feature film from writer/director Aaron Sorkin fully illustrates that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
In this riveting courtroom drama, he takes us back to 1969 where seven Americans were charged by the federal government of conspiracy in the wake of the violent riots that occurred in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In the transition from Lyndon B. Johnson to the Richard Nixon administration, the shift in power allowed the incoming Attorney General John Mitchell (later jailed for his role in the Watergate scandal) to put a target on these disparate protesters to argue that they had all joined forces to purposefully incite violence.
Sorkin is a masterful storyteller with an uncanny knack for sharp dialogue — fans will be pleased to see several key "walk and talk" scenes early on in the film. The actual trial scenes that make up the majority of the film are drawn from the original court transcripts. Some of the in-between moments have embellishments to boost Sorkin's obvious desire to tie this infamous blight in our nation's past to events that are happening today, but this is tautly edited and highly engaging throughout. One of the more effective choices is to blend in black and white archival footage during key moments, especially of the police attacking protestors. This drives home the narrative and reinforces the brutality that is still occurring across the country.
The screenplay is strong, but the film soars on the strength of its tremendous cast. It's a well-rounded group of established actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne alongside fiery performances from up-and-coming actors like Jeremy Strong ("Succession"), Yahya Abdul Mateen II ("Watchmen") and Kelvin Harrison Jr. ("Luce").
After the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed theatrical business, Paramount Pictures sold the film off to Netflix. While it is hard to imagine what awards season is going to look like for 2020, it will be shocking if comedian Sacha Baron Cohen isn't a strong contender in the best supporting actor race for his superior dramatic work here. It's hard to break out in such a strong ensemble, but he is the film's secret weapon with his portrayal of counterculture icon and activist Abbie Hoffman.
Make it a double feature along with "Steal This Movie" (streaming free on Tubi) or "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" (streaming free on Kanopy and Tubi).
The judge then declared all five of them to be committed to the custody of the Attorney General of the United States for imprisonment for a term of five years. Further, a fine of $5,000 and costs of prosecution were imposed. Cutting him off, Hoffman mocked him, “Five thousand dollars, Judge? Could you make that three-fifty? How about three and a half?”
Kunstler then tried to make a statement at the end saying, “After listening to them a few moments ago we know that what they have said here has more meaning and will be longer remembered than any words said by us or by you. We feel that if you could even begin to understand that simple fact, then their triumph would have been as overwhelming today as is our belief — ” However, judge Hoffman stopped him midsentence and said, “I gave you an opportunity to speak at the very beginning. You said counsel did not desire to speak.”
Portrait of the Chicago Seven and their lawyers as they raise their fists in unison outside the courthouse (Getty Images)
At the end of the case, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Rennie Davis were found guilty of incitement to riot and sentenced to 5 years each in federal prison. The verdict was reversed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and a new trial was ordered. But, the US Attorney declined to retry the case. Meanwhile, lawyer William Kunstler was charged with 24 counts of contempt of court.
The rousing and invigorating film shouts out in the end: “The whole world is watching!” Yes, it is. And then you think: “Maybe that’s what we are. An accidental spectacle.”
‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ premieres October 16, 2020 on Netflix.
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