Movie Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

In the spirit of protests and events that have gone down during the last two weeks in my home country against police brutality and bad governance, it felt poetic watching The Trial of the Chicago 7 at the height of the whole situation. Different regions, different motivations, but similar injustice across both movements from two different eras. You can read up on the whole EndSARS movement by clicking on the embedded link, where I found the 2 weeks nicely summarized.

Now, let us discuss United States v. David Dellinger et al. of the hippie 60s. Without spoilers, of course.

As the title says, The Trial of the Chicago 7 covers the trial of progressive activists during a politically heated American 60s. These activists demonstrated against the United States of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war and were consequently accused of inciting public violence against the police. Against the police? *inserts blinking white guy meme* Woohoo, that is a tough one to win. Whoever wins such…even in a ‘democratic’ state?
These activists, David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffmann, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and (Bobby Seale?) are from different groups: the Youth Progressive known as the Yippies, a students’ council, National Mobilization Committee and (the Black Panther Party?).
They cross state lines to carry out the protest of their lives in Chicago where the Democratic convention (1968) would take place, hoping it amplifies their voices which preached pacifism- an end to America’s participation in the Vietnam war.

Foreground: Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance.

The acts of this collective group of non-fictional men, whose conduct ranges from non-violent to eccentric, are backed up with strong performances by the ensemble cast, namely Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Noah Robbins, and Danny Flaherty. They are all swiftly introduced at the beginning of the movie, in very Sorkin-styled sequences, as the movie was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network).
It’s an illuminating movie that boasts a well-written script and top-grade performances all across the board where no one is left far behind. In a bid to make the adapted real-life events more dramatic than it happened and watchable for the viewers, filmmakers sometimes go extreme with their given creative freedom. But it differs to an extent here, as Sorkin did not have to add extra dramatic tales. The real-life event was drama-filled enough because of the theatrical nature of the activists and the biased judge who dished close to 150 counts of contempt throughout the trial which lasted five months. At a key moment during the trial, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) who represent the ‘Yippies’, stepped into the court with matching robes which was aimed at making fun of the judge and consequently disrupting proceedings. With such outlandish actions and quips, amongst others, the real-life event makes for good TV cinema.

Despite being primarily a drama, it also finds the right moments to be wittingly smart which makes it less stressful to watch due to the agonizing set of circumstances the film is reenacting. It involves the back and forth that takes place in a courtroom, headed by a compromised judge who hardly allows a free and fair trial to take place. This is also with an external influence of the newly elected administration-the prosecuting team, who tampers with the trial process, making it a ‘political trial’, not just against these activists, but against the preceding administration.
The judge, Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, makes it so easy to hate him and you really want to be on the side of the defendants in the courtroom, causing disruptions and gladly raking in counts of contempt from this biased judge. It is more like there is a judgement, and the judge aims to guide the ‘trial’ towards this endpoint that people above him have called for. Should anyone be above him? What about checks and balances? It is clearly an unfair trial, but how can they come out on top in a system that is bent on sending them down just to make a statement.

A shot of the courthouse where the trial takes place.

Moreover, this battle going on between the defendants and the United States government is racially and ideologically motivated.
Within the defendants who originate from different groups, who possess varying Modus Operandi when it comes to the initial public display and their subsequent defense during the trial. Only one thing they share is the progressive idea they promote. The two defendants representing the ‘Yippies’ are wild and carefree (causing most of the courtroom shenanigans), while the rest from the National Mobilization Committee and students’ council would rather be civil during the process.

A courtroom sketch of gagged Bobby Seale and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the left in the movie

So, who is Bobby Seale with the question mark? He is the co-founder of the Black Panther Party and was also in Chicago when the riots took place but was never with the other group of 7 as it took place. Faced with the testimony of the other men stating the facts that Bobby Seale was not one of them, the judge still vehemently refused to separate him from the ‘seven’, which made them eight for the major part of the stretched trial that lasted months. During this trial, Seale protested his innocence and requested a lawyer of his own, which they denied him. After profuse disruptions caused by Seale’s loud outcry of innocence, he was gagged and bound into a chair as the trial went on, with personal research showing that he lacked his freedom for a longer time than is depicted in the movie. This highlights the race issues America barely dealt with during this time- “Although we have accepted you, you can not still be us”. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Bobby Seale shines during his short-lived moments on screen, which happens mostly during the courtroom commotions.

The trial of the Chicago 7 is a deeply historical piece which aims to be factually correct. Starting from the costume design and set production that capture this era incredibly well. The movie selects and pieces clips of the actual events together with the reenacted version. This breathes an air of realism into the film and reminds us that this has truly happened before, this is something that can always happen again, or even arguably happening presently, screaming, “Hola Amigos!!! Hollywood didn’t come up with this one.” Showing the real-life events combined with the filmed version, makes it such an enjoyable cinematic experience, even for a TV screen.
You sense Sorkin’s shadow in the movie, especially in the courtroom, with the sharp dialogues and edits that occur when an episode is being recounted before the jury. This also can be seen during the first minutes of the movie, before the title card appears. We learn briefly about the men’s backgrounds and ideologies, just before we are thrown into the frantic scenes of the captivating courtroom which leaves no viewer behind, despite being 2 hours long.

Aaron Sorkin directing on set.

Going deeper into personal thoughts, these group of men were viewed as unconventional and a threat to the status quo in this era. However, they have unknowingly fallen into a war between regimes within the United States and they are just the fitting ‘lamb’ used to send a political and social message across the nation. USA is a scary place, most especially for its legal system and this movie reminded me accordingly. Also, it felt satisfying, experiencing stories and events that I’d learned in class. Interestingly, the major charge against the defendants was the conspiracy to cross state lines and incite riots, which is known as the Rap-Brown law. The Rap-Brown law was passed, to curtail free speech against Black activists from the South and had never been implemented in the court of law until this moment involving majorly white activists. Poetic justice? It ain’t rhetorical this time. So, hell yeah!!!

The Rap Brown Law is based on the idea that just one person, crossing a state line with the intent to do or participate in mischief

MR Online
mronline.org

This is one of the many 2020 movies originally planned for a theatrical release but sold to Netflix because of the pandemic. As Netflix released the trial of the Chicago 7, I had to watch it on the same day as a tribute to protests against police brutality going on in my home country, Nigeria. Although, the ongoing #EndSARS movement is more than violence in the hands of police as ‘brutality’ captures, it is a call for better governance and progressive thinking, stemming from the youths.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong playing Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

Side Musings

  • I find it strangely funny that Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the eccentric Abbie Hoffman, also has another new movie, a sequel to his BORAT, which is a total opposite of his serious role in The Trial of The Chicago 7. On that note, BORAT 2 is out!
  • Although, Noah Robbins and Danny Flaherty both play youthful like university students, it was great not seeing them act as high schoolers once again. Progress!
  • My favourite moment in the movie comes when Abbie Hoffman takes the stand. He has to breakdown a particular language use which had been wrongly interpreted and about to be used against them. At the end of the testimony, I concluded that Sacha Baron Cohen is an all-rounder. Same as, while facing the press, Abbie Hoffman is asked, “What’s your price” and he gives a chilling reply, “my life”.
  • Abbie Hoffman released a book in 1971, titled Steal This Book. I would like to know how many stores decided not to sell this book due to its title and how much loss it caused those who sold it.
  • Can we conclude that police forces all over the world are corrupt and never up to no good? Well, I have always guessed. This serves as a stern reminder.
Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin

I would like to know what your views on protests are and the best ways to carry one out in an oppressive regime? Also, for those who have seen the movie, how did you like it? If you have previous knowledge of the events, how much did it differ on screen? Lastly, should I introduce a rating feature at the end of my reviews? If yes, A-F or 1-10?


Bis Bald! #EndSars! 

11 comments

  1. Do protests work?
    We’d just be angry collectively then calm down eventually while the underlying issues persist.
    But then #EndSars!

    Yes for ratings
    1-10

    Liked by 1 person

    • They work, not in all cases though.
      So it’s a matter of why not try? Especially when there’s nothing to lose and the citizens have been pushed to the extreme.
      “If we win, it’s for our good. And if we don’t, no harm done.”

      Like

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