Film Review: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” acts as a mirror for the U.S.’s struggle for human rights

By Meagan Kennedy 

Elm Staff Writer 

Released on Netflix on Oct. 16, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” details the real-life trial of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy and inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Il. 

Posing the American people against federal government, the film takes its audience back in time to relive one of the United States’ most talked about trials, while demonstrating along the way a few glaring similarities to a corrupt modern U.S. society in 2020. 

Director and writer Aaron Sorkin — also known for contributing to the TV series “The West Wing,” (1999-2006) and for movies like “The Social Network” (2010) and “Steve Jobs” (2015) — originally began writing the script for “The Trial of the Chicago 7” after the American Writer’s Guild strike in 2007. 

Sorkin later decided to return to the script of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” in 2017, after Trump-era politics and human rights concerns began to look eerily like the setting of the late 1960s. 

The opening prologue of the movie sets the scene for the political, social, and cultural climate of 1968. It includes speeches from former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the anxiety of young men being drafted, news reports of the constant rise in draftees, and constant deaths of American soldiers amid the Vietnam War. 

All these clips work to help the audience see the startling similarities between today’s political and social climate to that of the late 1960s. The same disconnect between politicians, the police, the federal government and the American people continues to plague the U.S. 

Watching as the police officers removed their name tags and badges before becoming physically violent with protestors in the film was a sight all too familiar in 2020. As Vox reporter Alissia Wilkinson has attributed, it was beyond frightening to understand how little that disconnect between the American government and its people has changed over half a decade. 

The “Chicago 7,” originally known as the “Chicago 8,” included Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Lynch Carroll), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen II). 

Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was eventually removed from the trial after many petitions for representation in court since his lawyer was unable to represent him due to emergency gallbladder surgery. 

There are several underlying moments in which Sorkin makes it clear that systematic racism is what allowed Judge Julius Hoffman — played by Frank Langella — to repeatedly mistreat and mischarge Bobby Seale. 

In the film, Seale is constantly quieted and singled out by Judge Hoffman, even while he had no connection to the other defendants. 

The scene in which Seale is gagged and bound after repeatedly requesting to represent himself stands out as one of the most powerful yet horrifying scenes in the film. While watching it, the scene solidifies how differently the court had treated Seale compared to Abbie Hoffman, who became a character known for his outbursts and lack of seriousness in court. 

“[The scene is] a stranger-than-fiction moment that became an instant metaphor for entrenched, systematic American authoritarianism and racism,” The Ringer writer Adam Nayman said. 

In many ways, the unjust treatment of Bobby Seale throughout the trial is a clear comparison to the current fight against systematic brutality against Black Americans and people of color in the U.S. 

The constant silencing of Seale in court, mischarging, and violence against him while the other white defendants were continuously passed for the same actions seemed an almost obvious comparison to the hundreds of stories of mistreated Black people in modern America. 

“Seale, in clear contrast, is Black. And we’re meant to understand that the judge’s actions toward him — which differ from the way he treats the seven white defendants — are part of the long-running American tradition of justice lifting her blindfold,” Wilkinson said. 

Seale’s story was powerful and exemplary throughout almost half the film. However, many find problems with Sorkin’s almost complete elimination of Seale’s story and the return to quick-witted and snarky dialogue between the leading white characters after his removal from the trial. 

“It’s as if after placing his tragic, defiant African American character on display so that we can shake our heads at his treatment, the director is free to return to the seriocomic bickering between movie stars that is his specialty,” Nayman said. 

Many reviewers worried about Sorkin’s glorification of the trial itself. With his witty dialogue and inspiring speeches, by the end of the film, the audience sides with the protestors as real American heroes, but others fear that was not necessarily the reality of the 1968 trial. 

Masses of people were injured at the expense of these protests and sacrificed their lives for an end to the war, and glorifying the careless banter is a dangerous representation to the lives of those involved. 

“There really is no equivalent to individuals like Hayden and Hoffman today because social media does that job now,” Sorkin said to Wall Street Journal reporter Tobias Grey. “Twitter just says get on the streets and everybody does it so it’s not as well-organized as it was. Of course, I understand the irony that I’m talking about a protest being well-organized that ended in catastrophe, but right up until the final moment it was well-organized.” 

This film was shot prior to this year’s protests in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement, but still falls into the laps of audiences at a very important and relevant part of U.S. and global history. Its sensitivity and focus on the clear police brutality and systematic racism in the 1960s acts as a reminder of the history of racism across American policy. The Black Lives Matter movement is rooted in a long-standing fight to recognize and reestablish a new culture in American society. 

“[This choice] to re-tell a story encompassing themes of civil disobedience, free speech, racism, police brutality, and the splintering solidarity of the left in 2020 is a shrewd move,” Nayman said. “But there’s a fine line between topicality and self-aggrandizing opportunism, and for all the talent on display, the ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ stumbles along with two left feet.” 

One of the most important messages the film connects to the current climate is described by Chicago Tribune writer Robert Davis from 2008, who called the trial a symbol for “the widening gap between generations cleaved by the war in Vietnam.” 

In many ways, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” reflects the generational divide over political and cultural change in 21st century America, as we continue to see that same generational rift over fighting for human rights and political control that many activists dreamed of in the 1960s. 

This film demonstrates that, perhaps, there is hope for change and for peace in 2020. The U.S. has seen these shifts and challenges previously and seeing stories like these in main media can inspire hope for a better America after so much turmoil.

Featured Photo caption: For those looking to dive into a documentary detailing one of the most high-profiled — and controversialcourt cases of the 20th century, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020) is the film to watch. Photo Courtesy of Claire Anderson.

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