The Trial of the Chicago Seven

A Review by Martha Sonnenberg

[Editor’s note: I was one of the 5,000 plus anti-war activists who traveled from around the country to nonviolently demonstrate against the pro-war perspective of the Democratic Party that was about to nominate pro-war Vice President Hubert Humphrey to run against Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. I was knocked down unconscious by police chasing demonstrators near the Hilton hotel that housed official delegates during what Illinois Governor Otto Kerner later described as “a police riot.” I had been scared by Mayor Daley’s promise to order police to shoot to kill, but like most of the others who traveled to Chicago, the moral outrage of the war had been dominating my life and consciousness, and it seemed too selfish to worry about myself when there was a chance to challenge the war-makers. In Berkeley, I had been roommates with Jerry Rubin for several years while a was working on my Ph.D., thesis as a graduate student in philosophy and we had developed a huge teach-in on “Black Power” to educate students about contemporary racism in the U.S.  After the Chicago demonstrations both Jerry and Phil Ochs stayed with me in Berkeley to reflect on what we had experienced. A few days after the trial of the Chicago 7 ended in 1970 II organized a demonstration in Seattle (where I was then teaching philosophy at the U.of Washington) to protest the misuse of the federal judiciary as an instrument of political repression.

That earned me a parallel indictment and trial as one of “the Seattle 7” which ended with me and the others being sent to the federal penitentiary (long story to be told in a memoir I’m working on). So I was delighted when one of Tikkun’s most gifted writers volunteered to write a review of an event that had shaped both of our lives in subsequent years. Please read her reflections on the movie  The Chicago 7  that is now sweeping the country and tell me your reactions to her review.
--Rabbi Michael Lerner  Editor Tikkun www.tikkun.org  rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com ]


The Intersection of Memory and History: A Review of “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,”
written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Netflix

In a recent panel discussion of Aaron Sorkin’s film, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” (Netflix), Rennie Davis, now 80, and one of the seven, refers to “the wizardry of the timing of this film.” And it is true: whatever one thinks of this film, and whether you were there, or just learning about the events of 1969, and whether you like the film or not, the relevance of this history to today’s political environment is undeniable.

The film portrays the 1969 Chicago trial of seven men who were charged with inciting a riot when the anti-war protest of the 1968 Democratic Convention ended in violent confrontation with the Chicago Police and National Guard. The men were Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Dave Dellinger, John Froines and Lee Weiner. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was the eighth man charged. It is called “the Chicago seven” because Seale’s case was eventually split off from the rest, in a turn of events after Seale demanded that he be allowed to represent himself, and after he was bound and gagged by order of the racist and biased judge, Julius Hoffman

At the outset, let me say that this is an entertaining, engaging and sometimes inspiring film, a progressive feel good film. It has the benefit of a great story, the crisp and clever dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, and a strong cast. Sasha Baron Cohen leads the list with his uncanny ability to inhabit the persona of his characters, in this case, Abbie Hoffman. Other strong performances were from Mark Rylance as the defendant’s lawyer, William Kunstler, and Frank Langella as the martinet Judge Julius Hoffman. Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, John Carroll Lynch as Dave Dellinger, Daniel Flaherty as John Froines , Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner, Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass, the other defense attorney, were all adequate but were not able to rescue their characters from the flattened portrayals offered by a writer who never knew and didn’t really understand the people he wrote about. Yahya Abdul-Mateen was a credible Bobby Seale, but since Seale’s role in the film is minimized, he wasn’t able to develop Bobby Seale’s character fully.

The Festival of Life
The event preceding the trial was the protest involving thousands of young anti-war activists who came to Chicago to protest the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and its support of the Vietnam war and its nomination of Hubert Humphrey. The seven men named in the trial had been organizers of this protest, bringing together several groups and organizations which had very different notions of how to stop the war and how to create change—Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS (Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis), the Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam (Dave Dellinger) and the Youth International Party, or Yippies (Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman). John Froines and Lee Weiner represented the university based left. From the outset, the event was intended to be peaceful and non-violent, emphasizing a celebration of life (“The Festival of Life”), in contrast to the “death culture” represented by the government and its escalation of the war. The organizers wanted to create an example of “an alternate community” in Lincoln Park, perhaps a predecessor of the Occupy Movement decades later.

We need your support to bring the kind of analyses and information Tikkun provides. Click Here to make a tax-deductible contribution.


“They’re Beating Our Children”

The peaceful notion of the protest was not to be realized. During that hot summer week in August 1968, the protesters encountered increasing escalation of violent confrontation between themselves and the Chicago Police and National Guard. Night after night, on television, the country and the world, saw protesters brutally clubbed and tear gassed. Rennie Davis, as one of the recognized organizers, was clubbed bloody, causing a concussion. Walter Cronkite, on the news said, “ They’re beating our children.”

Ways of Seeing
Young activists today, or anyone who is unfamiliar with this history, will surely appreciate this film for its striking parallels with the tumult we are witnessing in 2020, with a global pandemic and its enormous death toll, a crushing economic crisis, a reactionary and inhumane administration, the uprisings and protests over racial injustice, as well as the brutality with which those protests have been met. There is a chilling moment in the film when someone asks the bound and gagged Bobby Seale, “Bobby, can you breathe?” George Floyd and Eric Garner immediately come to mind. Through this lens, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” can inspire hope and determination to continue the struggle for change.

However, those who have their own memories of these events will view “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” differently from those who for whom this history is a revelation. And in that sense, these two groups of perceivers will actually “see” two different films. The content of the film remains the same, but the relationship of the audience to the content changes. For those of us who remember, or who experienced these events, the story is much more complex than the film suggests. For this reason, the film can be a disappointing oversimplification and distortion of the real events which had an unforgettable impact on peoples’ lives.

First, the 60’s, and 1968-69 in particular, were memorable for more than the Chicago trial. Many young people, both black and white, were radicalized by the movement for civil rights that began in the South. They experienced the violence with which that movement was met. In March of 1965, a young John Lewis led over 600 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, demonstrating for the right to vote. They faced brutal attacks by Alabama state troopers. Footage of this attack shocked television viewers across the country, and intensified the struggle against racial injustice.

Further, the country was still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and then experienced further trauma in 1968, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. The assassination of King led to uprisings in over 100 cities, again met with strong police and National Guard presence. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy, whose presidential campaign emphasized racial equality, economic justice and a peaceful conclusion to the Vietnam war, was assassinated. So the country, and especially youthful protesters, had become familiar with the presence of violence as a response to progressive politics, and familiar with the increasing militarization of the police.

All of this occurred in the context of the Vietnam War (1954-1975), which was really an extension of the Cold War against Communism. The passion behind the protest of this war was not explored in this film, and it was a passion with several components. It was, as the film alludes to in its final scenes, the increasing numbers of American soldiers brought back in body bags, or maimed, physically and psychologically. The protesters saw young people their own age, sometimes brothers, friends and schoolmates, killed in a war was defending the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the authoritarian dictator in South Vietnam, and made them question whether there was any purpose to these deaths. So the death toll was deeply personal and emotional for the protesters.

The passion went deeper in outrage over the vast carnage of the war itself. Protesters saw in Vietnamese death toll the racism of minimizing death among the Vietnamese people, and the willingness of the US government to kill innocent civilians.

There was outrage that the vocal critics of the war, King and Robert Kennedy had been silenced by assassination. And finally, there was outrage against the hypocrisy of Democratic Party, once idealistically thought to represent the liberal preservation of democracy, now enthusiastically supporting an illegitimate war in the name of democracy. Hubert Humphrey epitomized this hypocrisy— a progressive liberal in the 1940s, he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Vietnam war in the 60’s. This was the beginning of the general disillusionment with American liberalism.

The Vietnam war was fought in Southeast Asia, but it was being broadcast in the nightly news, forcing the American public to witness, and increasingly oppose, the violence and death and destruction occurring in Vietnam. This increasing opposition on the part of the public as well as among protesters was profoundly threatening to the Nixon administration. Nixon was determined to press charges against the leadership of the Chicago protests, particularly after Lyndon Johnson’s justice department had not recommended that charges be brought. The trial of the Chicago 7 was intended to be a show trial, against protesting citizens, and a warning of the dangers of dissent. The capricious Judge Julius Hoffman was the perfect person to preside over the trial.

In the film, all of this emotional, political and historical context is eclipsed. Consequently, the defendants and the movement they represented are presented in a flattened, one dimensional way. Nancy Kurshan, who was then the partner of Jerry Rubin, remembers the mass support of the Chicago protests and the trial defendants. Writing about the film, she says “The missing element in the film was the rest of us, by which I mean the thousands of anti-war activists who came to the trial, who waited out in the cold for hours…and all of us who joined in the support effort…and were threatened and removed and arrested.” (CounterPunch.org).

Support for the demonstrators was widespread, beyond the thousands who came to Chicago. Rennie Davis recalls that after the police clubbed him, he was brought to Cook County Hospital for treatment. The Chicago police were out to find him and arrest him, doing a room-by-room search in the County Emergency Room. In a remarkable act of courage, County nurses put Davis on a stretcher, covered him up, and helped him evade the police. For Davis this was evidence of the impact the demonstrators were having on the city and the country. (Guardian interview) The massiveness of the anti-war movement was not a character in this film.

“The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” is largely a film about men. Women are noticeably scarce in the film. We see a woman answering the phone in the defendant’s headquarters, we see women burning bras as part of the protest, and we see an undercover policewoman seducing Jerry Rubin (Fiction). But women were very much a part of the anti-war movement. By 1968 and 1969, the women’s movement was gaining momentum, and women were confronting the male chauvinism that characterized the left. They began contributing to the theoretical debates about political strategies, and they were no longer content to stay in the background, and leave leadership to men. In a discussion of this film, Judy Gumbo (then partner of Yippie Stew Albert), Nancy Kurshan and Natasha Dellinger (daughter of Dave Dellinger), all note the significant role they, and other women played during the trial, working for the defense, getting witnesses, and participating in protests during and after the trial.

The portrayals of the defendants themselves were caricatures of men who were complex and had political and psychological depth. I found particularly disturbing the almost cartoonish ways in which the Yippies, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were portrayed. Jerry Rubin, who appears somewhat the buffoon in the film, was, in fact, a thoughtful and effective political strategist. He had a perceptive and prescient analysis of “the Left” that is sadly still quite true today:

“The left is one dimensional. It’s like only on the political level and it’s fighting only with 19th century weapons, and it isn’t interested in total revolution. It’s not into sex, it’s not into music, it’s not into the way people live…”(Interview in The Movement, November, 1966)

Similarly, Abbie Hoffman is portrayed as clownish. While it is true that Hoffman valued the theater and the spectacle of confronting the establishment, and appreciated that aspect of the trial, he was also a serious and reflective thinker:

“Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit.” (From “The Lives of Abbie Hoffman”, by Jack Hoffman)

The film’s versions of Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis and David Dellinger were similarly oversimplified.

And then there is Bobby Seale, whose portrayal is another caricature, and whose role in the trial is diminished. The importance of the Black Panther Party, and the relationship of white radicals and black radicals are not addressed. We do see Bobby Seale demanding to represent himself. But what led to his being bound and chained was not his saying “strongly go fuck yourself,” to Julius Hoffman. It was this statement that so enraged the judge:

“You have George Washington and Benjamin Franklin sitting in a picture behind you, and they were slave owners. That’s what they were. They owned slaves. You are acting in the same manner denying me my constitutional rights.” (“What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Slate, Oct. 15, 2020)

In the film we see Seale bound and gagged only once. In fact, this happened for four days, and it was profoundly distressing to the defendants as well as to the jurors. Rennie Davis, in his own review of the film, writes, “The movie gives you no idea of the intense four day build up as Bobby was chained and gagged in front of the jury. The movie didn’t even explain the global impact of this extraordinary event—a black man chained and gagged in an American courtroom for wanting to represent himself”. In reality, what happened to Bobby Seale, and the December 4, 1968 assassination of his friend and Chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, brought to the front of everyone’s consciousness the profound and specific nature of violence against black people, and especially against black leaders. It further illuminated the different treatment accorded to white radicals and black radicals. The Chicago Seven may have been on trial, but Fred Hampton was assassinated. It was Fred Hampton’s mission to build a political and cultural movement which would bring together black, white, and latinos in Chicago and then nationally. The idea of such a coalition was threatening to the Daley machine in Chicago. To many people, Fred Hampton’s murder, while despicable, was not a surprise. The FBI had targeted the Black Panther party as “the greatest threat to U.S. security.” It was the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) and the Chicago police, who raided Hampton’s apartment in the early morning hours and were ultimately found responsible for Hampton’s murder (“The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther”, Jeffrey Haas) This murder of someone whom many of the Chicago Seven considered a friend, was a profound shock to those defendants.

Sorkin leaves ambiguous who actually started the violence at the DNC protest. He suggests that it might have been a statement by Tom Hayden that was the precipitant. In reality, there was no ambiguity. Anyone who was there, or who witnessed this demonstration knows very well that it was not the protesters who initiated the violence. But it was left to a national commission to study the events and to conclude that it was a “police riot.” Ultimately, the defendants, despite their theoretical and political differences, came together for this trial, because they realized that it was really the US government that was on trial and the whole world was watching.

The Artist and Historical Truth
These different ways of seeing “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” stem from the fact that this film, and film in general, is by its nature viewed by a diverse audience. When a film is shown either in theaters, or now streamed on cable, it becomes accessible to millions of people, and the uniqueness of its creator’s vision is lost. Rather, as John Berger has pointed out, “its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings.” (“Ways of Seeing”, John Berger). We can appreciate, then, how the meaning of this film is so diversified.

There is another issue at play here, which has to do with the creation of any fictionalized story about history. Any artist, in this case Aaron Sorkin, must view history through the prism of his or her own imagination. To ask for complete historical accuracy is to ask for a documentary. The issue is that while some aspects of this film may fall short of the memories of those who lived the history, there is no purposeful false information here. Aaron Sorkin’s job is to tell a story, and he is a good storyteller. As such, it is his choice of how best to show the drama of this trial, and to make is meaningful today. So despite all that may be lacking or undeveloped in this film, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” is a good film. And whether you see this film as an inspiration for activism, or a blunting of the breadth of activism, the diversity of interpretations of the film should not detract from, but can enrich, a story well told. It is a film worth seeing.

We need your support to bring the kind of analyses and information Tikkun provides. Click Here to make a tax-deductible contribution.
More

One thought on “The Trial of the Chicago Seven

  1. This is a most puzzling movie review. It describes how the film trivializes Seale, omits Hampton, and turns Rubin into a buffoon; how it denies the significance of the Vietnam War, and how it distorts the role of women in the anti-war movement. Then it proceeds to recommend it: “a good film…worth seeing.” Why is it good, why is it worth seeing?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *