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The Trial of the Chicago 7

Mr. Kunstler: “Abbie, do you know why you’re on trial here?”
Abbie Hoffman: “We carried certain ideas across state lines. Not machine guns or drugs or little girls, but ideas.”

They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. This movie develops history that is extraordinarily relevant to the events of today. It’s also compelling entertainment.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is based on the trial of seven (initially eight) men who played roles (or not) in the 1968 Chicago riots. As this is based on real events, and many people are already aware of the outcome of the trial, if not the details, this review contains spoilers.

The movie starts in 1968, setting up the tensions in American society. That was the year in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, two liberal icons, were assassinated. The movie reminds us repeatedly of the US escalation in Vietnam, where Americans are being drafted in increasing numbers to die without understanding why they should go kill Vietnamese people. This unifying motivator is why people are going to protest, because at that time seemed to be no difference between Democrats and Republicans with respect. Another reason for choosing the Democratic National Convention is because it automatically brings a lot of journalists and their cameras to one spot, and hence the protesters can expect attention.

Before the title of the movie appears, we get scenes of actual personages (LBJ, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and even Walter Cronkite) as well as the Chicago 7, seven young men who go to Chicago to raise consciousness about the war at the Democratic National Convention – and Bobby Seale, the head of the Black Panthers.

We see the plans to go, and then after the title, the movie skips ahead five months, at the US DOJ. (The movie is good about keeping the audience oriented in time and space.) The film, by changing the portrait of presidents while we’re in the waiting room, reminds us there’s a different president now; we have exchanged Lyndon B. Johnson for Richard Nixon (the first “law and order” president). A new president means a new attorney general, and this one – John Mitchell – has decided to prosecute those accused of starting the riots in Chicago.

One great source of tension is what it means for the career bureaucrats to transition from one administration to another, especially when leadership decides to go in a completely different direction. The assignment to prosecute the alleged rioters is given to Richard Schultz, who first points out that the Johnson administration looked into the riots and decided there was nothing to prosecute. John Mitchell does not seem to care about this, which is about as stomach-churning as it gets, when a government prosecutes for political reasons.

The trial itself is noisy, with the defendants interrupting the judge a lot. I don’t know how representative this is of reality. But given who the defendants were – men ready to protest – it would be in character for them to bring their ways into the courtroom. Besides, the judge, Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella – who does unctuous really well – makes numerous outrageous rulings.

Our characters tend to fall into categories that are either mostly good (Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Ramsey Clark) or mostly bad (John Mitchell, Julius Hoffman). There are those you cannot quite make up your mind about, such as Richard Schultz, the lead prosecutor. Then there are the tensions within the various sides. Hayden and Abbie Hoffman may be mostly on the same side, but their approaches are vastly different. Hayden wants to work within the system, and he shows up at trial with short hair and wearing a sportscoat, while Abbie Hoffman’s hair is wild (a huge statement at the time).

The movie switches between the trial and scenes in Chicago around the riots. The trial is complicated by the fact that Bobby Seale, who points out he was not part of the riots – he was only in Chicago for a few hours – keeps complaining that he doesn’t have a lawyer (his lawyer fell ill).

The movie shows us several strategies of setting up a trial, for example, in who was chosen to be in the group of defendants. The prosecutors have included the leader of the Black Panthers, because a big black man would be scary. They also include two local guys, who have little notoriety (they feel honored actually to be in such illustrious company) so the jury can choose to acquit them and feel generous. We see how some members of the jury signal that they are sympathetic to the defendants – and how they get kicked off the jury.

The trial shows shocking developments, especially concerning Bobby Seale. He’s alive today, although some of his friends did not survive the trial. The end, with how Tom Hayden reminds everyone the real reason for the protests, with the reading of the names, matters.

Title musings. Usually I have something to say about the title of a movie or an episode of a TV series, but on this occasion there are no multiple meanings. This is a film about the trial of the Chicago 7.

Bits and pieces

I was alive when the events happened, but too young to pay attention to them.

John Mitchell, as far as I know, is the only US Attorney General to serve time in prison. Perjury.

Ramsey Clark, attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, died on April 9, 2021, the day before I started watching this.

LBJ blamed Ramsey Clark for the narrow loss of Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.

This movie was nominated for several Academy Awards, to be held on April 25, 2021.

Richard Schultz was interviewed soon after the movie first aired, and he said there were many inaccuracies. For example, the horrifying incident with respect to Bobby Seale was done so that he could be in the courtroom.

The most chilling moment, in my opinion, is when the police remove their badges and nametags.

There is an earlier film, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, made in 1987, that I now really want to see! Note that a version was turned down in 1976 because CBS thought no one was interested in the 1960s.

Abbie Hoffman is the author of the cult classic, Steal this Book.

I really liked the “one egg is enough” bit. Un oeuf is French for one egg and sounds like “enough”.

Quotes

Bobby Seale: I’m the head of the Black Panthers. When the hell am I not going to be in trouble?

John Mitchell: Ramsey Clark doesn’t run the Justice Department anymore, and Mr. Johnson is back in Texas.

Lee Weiner: Does anyone think our judge might be crazy?

Abbie Hoffman: It's revolution, Tom, we may have to hurt somebody's feelings.

Tom Hayden: If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what comes second.

Abbie Hoffman (to Tom Hayden): We define winning differently, you and I.

Tom Hayden: I did not volunteer to go kill Vietnamese people, no.

Many times: The whole world is watching!

Ramsey Clark: The president isn’t a client of the attorney general.

Woman inside a Chicago watering-hole: Hey! Am I the only one who sees what’s going on out there?

Overall rating

Absolutely compelling, completely relevant, and a reminder that we always have to stand up for what we believe in. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Even if some of the details are not 100% accurate, the movie shows things that could easily (and do) happen today. Four out of four “enough” eggs.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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