As winter break approaches, you may be preparing for a two-month hibernation until school (hopefully) returns on February 1st. If you find yourself scrolling mindlessly through Netflix titles during this time, I highly recommend that you end your search and watch Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Released earlier this fall, The Trial of the Chicago 7 follows the legal battle of a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors who were put on trial for allegedly conspiring to incite the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Eight individuals, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) were arrested, charged with conspiracy and blamed by the Nixon administration for the violence that occurred the night of the convention. All of the defendants except Seale are represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman). Sorkin flashes back and forth between the trial and the events leading up to and during the riots in the summer of ‘68. Much of the film is focused on the politics of the time both within the anti-war movement and on Capitol Hill.
While watching the movie, I was struck by how many of the themes presented paralleled current events. The film documents the absurdities and unfairness of the justice system. An early scene in the movie reveals how the entire prosecution against the defendants was concocted by Nixon’s justice department to take revenge on the anti-war movement and the former attorney general of the Johnson administration, Ramsey Clark (Micheal Keaton). The judge who presides over the case, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), shows clear favoritism to the prosecutors (played by J.C. MacKenzie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and prejudice towards the only Black defendant, Bobby Seale, who is also a leader of the Black Panther Party. For instance, Judge Hoffman removes jurors suspected of sympathizing with the Black Panthers and charges many of the defendants with multiple counts of contempt of court. Eventually, Seale was dropped from the case before a verdict was reached as a result of a mistrial, leaving seven defendants (hence the title of the film). The movie reinforces the reality that the justice system works to demonize and punish those who challenge the government at the bidding of petty politicians, not for the people.
The film also highlights the conflict in methodology within the anti-war movement. David Dellinger is a pacifist, whereas Seale and the head of the Chicago Panthers, Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) push for a more militant approach to bring an end to the war. Yippie Abbie Hoffman is at odds with clean-cut Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society, in their ideologies surrounding how to create lasting political change. The tumultuous rivalries within the group present a difficult task for their lawyer William Kunstler who must advocate for their innocence while facing opposition from the government and the clear prejudice of Judge Hoffman.
It’s an unfortunate reality that our corrupt justice system actively works against the interests of the people of the United States. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is yet another example of the fact that very little has changed about the system in the fifty years since the trial depicted in the movie took place. However, it does offer hope to the viewer that with collaborative efforts and forceful pressure against the powers-at-be, true justice can prevail and bring about change to a broken system.