Liberties Taken: A Welcome, if Flawed, Glimpse of Recent US History

NATIONAL GUARD TROOPS patrolling city streets, a Republican presidential candidate constantly invoking the slogan ‘law and order’ – the year is not 2020, but 1968, writes George Binette and it forms the backdrop to the events recounted with much literary license in The Trial of the Chicago 7, an engrossing cinematic treatment with a big name cast of one of the most notorious court cases in US history.

The film’s appearance in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election seems largely coincidental as it had more than a decade’s gestation after Steven Spielberg first contacted writer/director Aaron Sorkin (best known in Britain for the West Wing) about writing a screenplay. In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Sorkin admitted that after an unexpected visit to Spielberg’s home to discuss a potential movie about the case he rang his father to find out who the Chicago 7 were! Sorkin, who turns 60 in January, was between eight and nine during the trial, which received saturation coverage in the US, featuring almost nightly on television newscasts when cameras were not allowed into US courtrooms.


Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't even agree on lunch. - Abbie Hoffman

The trial unfolded over six months in 1969 and ’70, initially including eight defendants, charged with inciting riots outside the August 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. The convention ultimately nominated then vice-president Hubert Humphrey to stand in that November’s presidential election, eventually won by Republican Richard Nixon. A broad coalition of groups opposed to the US war in Vietnam had mobilised tens of thousands of largely young, largely white people to protest the Democrats’ continued prosecution of the war in a year which saw both the highest level of US casualties and revelations of horrific atrocities such as the My Lai massacre perpetrated by American forces.

Chicago at the time of the convention and trial was under the sway of Democratic Mayor Richard J Daley, one of the last Irish-American machine operators, who retained the city’s mayoralty by hook or by crook for more than two decades. He appears only briefly in newsreel footage at the film’s start, though there’s little doubt that he gave his tacit blessing to Chicago’s police force operating with naked brutality and often overt racism.


The trial was initiated at the behest of John Mitchell, Nixon’s appointee as the US Attorney General, roughly equivalent to a British home secretary. The eighth man in the dock at the start was the then Black Panther Party leader, Bobby Seale, who had played no real part in organising the demonstration and had only addressed a rally before leaving Chicago after just four hours. The Panthers were, however, very much a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO programme, an umbrella label for a series of covert, often illegal, operations conducted between 1956 and ’79, so there was a ready-made excuse to put Seale in the frame even as he faced a trumped-up charge in the murder of a Connecticut police officer.


To the film’s credit it explicitly references the police killing of Fred Hampton, the young, very capable leader of the Panthers’ Chicago chapter, which occurred in the midst of the trial. Director/screenwriter Sorkin uses dramatic license in depicting Seale’s treatment by presiding judge Julius Hoffman. The unabashedly biased and incompetent, Hoffman, who remained on the bench until the eve of his 88th birthday, repeatedly held Seale in contempt of court. In the film the leading Panther is removed from the court, beaten by marshals and then returned to the dock manacled and gagged. All that indeed happened, though the film suggests that Seale was swiftly released after Justice Hoffman had no alternative but to declare a mistrial. In fact, Seale had to appear bound and gagged for four sessions before he was eventually allowed to leave and face a murder trial in Connecticut.


Don't trust anyone over thirty. - Jerry Rubin.

Of the remaining seven defendants only five were truly central to the case: Rennie Davis, the sole survivor of the five, and Tom Hayden, founders of Students for a Democratic Society, David Dellinger, a pacifist and self-avowed socialist, and Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, leading lights of the Youth International Party (Yippies), who offered a distinctively American take on situationism. Hoffman, portrayed in the film by Sacha Baron Cohen, emerges as something of a hero, a flamboyant, but erudite radical, who despite sharp ideological differences with Hayden stands by him at a critical moment in the proceedings.


The screenplay apparently exaggerated the rows between defendants, while also downplaying the radicalism of the lead defence lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), who actually placed a Viet Cong flag on the courtroom table and frequently wore a black armband in court to commemorate the war dead, but not in this film. The movie is also extremely charitable in its depiction of the lead federal prosecutor as there’s no evidence that he suffered a crisis of conscience. For all its strengths in highlighting the reality of police brutality in repressing the August 1968 demonstrations and hinting at the scale of state surveillance of the anti-war movement the movie’s closing scene is pure Hollywood hokum.


Since 1967 my primary work and concern has been ending the war in Vietnam.- Rennie Davis

Still, despite its limitations, the film is both entertaining and a provocative exposition of the capacity of a supposedly liberal democratic state to suppress domestic dissent. What it does not and perhaps cannot convey is the distance that existed between the anti-war movement and the vast majority of the organised working class as the post-war long boom approached its end.


The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin; running time: 130 minutes; available on Netflix and a handful of cinemas.


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