It is often in history that the story of the present could be told colourfully, and perhaps even meaningfully. There is nothing like seeing our present through the lens of yesterday. It makes us more modest, shows us that our societies have been through predicaments just as bad, or worse. It offers us hope that whatever the damage that may have been done, it is possible to heal once more.
Aaron Sorkin, ever the adept storyteller and now also directing, tells such a story in The Trial of the Chicago Seven. In 2020, when the United States was racked with the challenges of liberalism, populism, mistrust of institutions and social cleavages, he dives headfirst into what was perhaps an even more rocky time for the North American country: the 1960s.
In the popular imagination, the ‘60s was the Beatles, Woodstock, Free Love and the Civil Rights Movement. The young, women and minorities rose to attempt to redefine the Unites States. They declared that women were not sexually liberated enough, that their country was waging an unjust war in Vietnam, and that American history has been bleak for a section of the society. They grew their hair long, smoked pot and sang songs of peace, all the while staring the patriarchy dead in the eye.
Uncle Sam, unfortunately, still controlled the military-industrial complex, the financial capital and, perhaps most importantly, the institutional tools to bend the law to its favour. It has been the tragedy of the Left that it assumed that its understanding of history, its sudden awakening, is in any way a good defence against the sticks and stones the powers that be are willing to employ.
Sorkin focuses on the use of the judiciary as a means of waging war against the counterculture movement. In 1968, the Democratic National Convention was being held in Chicago, where a new presidential nominee would be elected. But with the Vietnam War and the high profile assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the atmosphere for political turbulence was set.
For the event, leaders of various left-leaning movements, organisations and personalities organised rallies to descend on the convention. They all hoped it would be peaceful. It was not, less as a result of the actions of the people attending the rallies but police that ended up inciting riots.
Richard Nixon would win the presidential election that year and appoint a William Barr-like character, John Mitchell, a close conspirator during the Watergate Scandal, as Attorney General. In characteristic Nixon fashion, he goes against the opposition, the counterculture in this case, with the charge of inciting riots during the Chicago rally.
Charges are filed against the who’s who of the American grassroots left political movement. These included celebrities such as Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and three more. It was originally the Chicago eight until Seale’s case was declared a mistrial.
They are brought before an uncompromising judge who is clearly conservative, Julius Hoffman, played majestically by the ever wonderful Frank Langella. A jury that is not necessarily of their peers is picked for them. They are to be judged by a system they are attempting to change, because they believe it is unfair and unjust, designed to perpetuate the privileges of a few.
Sorkin is a master of rapid and witty dialogue and the sustaining of suspense. The film is as absorbing, touching and not easily predictable. More importantly, it resists the temptation to be preachy, as most social commentaries are – a trap Sorkin avoids through the clever employment of humour.
It also has one truly shocking scene. Before Seale’s case was dropped, he had been making a ruckus in the courtroom, asserting that he was unjustly charged. The judge, having enough of his interruptions, orders the bailiffs to take him to another room, where he is beaten and then brought to the courtroom gagged and his hands bound.
I thought at the moment that this was Sorkin taking poetic license. It was not. In 1968, Seale, leader of the Black Panther Party, was beaten, gagged and chained on the orders of an American judge to sit in a courtroom on charges that were obviously trumped-up and politically motivated. This is recent history.
It is to the credit of the likes of Sorkin to bring this part of history to life, which threatens to disappear if left untold and is proof of the stubbornness and longevity of oppression over the human spirit.
PUBLISHED ON Nov 29,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1074]
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