Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a timely but historical account of the protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) and the notorious trial that followed. Most notably, in today’s current unrest, the film asks audiences the question: What is worth standing up for?
That year, protests to speak out against the Vietnam War led to violence between police and protesters, and the film successfully captures the political unrest and events that occurred with archival footage: then-President Lyndon B. Johnson raising the monthly draft call from 17,000 to 35,000 in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech and his assassination in April 1968, and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s speech about King’s assassination and then his own murder in June of that same year.
And 1968 was the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War, with more than 1,000 American troops dying every month that summer. With the DNC, the spotlight was on Chicago, setting the perfect stage for activists seeking to have their voices heard.
But with tear gas, police surrounding protesters, and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s vow to increase police and National Guard presence, the protest visuals looked eerily similar to recent events, as people across the country took to the streets to protest the police killings of Black people this summer, set off initially by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (According to the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence later, police did in fact cause the violence during the 1968 DNC protests.)
Chicago, no stranger to such controversy, became the home of the federal trial that drew in an even larger audience after eight activists—many of whom had never even met—were accused of conspiracy. Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party (Yippies); David Dellinger, John Froines, and Lee Weiner of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam; and Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale were all accused of violating the anti-riot “Rap Brown law”—formally known as the Civil Obedience Act of 1968.
H. “Rap” Brown, now named Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, is an activist who became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1967. During a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts to make a speech, he was arrested and charged with inciting a riot—although the riot was later shown to be a result of deep-seated racial issues in the town and that he had nothing to do with it. The act made it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot. No one had been charged with the Rap Brown law before this group.
Even with little to no evidence, the trial started with all eight men—an “all-star team” pulled together to be used as an example, to send a message that the U.S. government will prosecute based on ideas, based on intent. “We weren’t arrested,” Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) says in the film. “We were chosen.”
The trial in the film starts with crowds gathered outside of the U.S. District Court yelling, “The whole word is watching.” Onscreen, the courtroom antics, jokes, and fights paint the trial as lively and entertaining. But the film also punctured the laughs with heart-pounding scenes to hone in on how the men were targeted and subsequently mistreated.
The Chicago 8 became the Chicago 7 as Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was severed from the case. Seale—who had been in Chicago a total of four hours to deliver a speech during the protests—continually requested his trial be postponed until his lawyer could be present or to represent himself in his lawyer’s absence as the other seven men had the same representation. The judge denied every one of Seale’s requests, and when the judge tired of him speaking out, he had him chained and gagged.
Seale was charged with contempt and then removed from the trial. In addition to his mistrial, five of the seven remaining defendants were sentenced to five years in prison, but in 1972, their convictions were overturned, and the case was never retried.
The film also shows Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, supporting Seale—until police killed him in his home, in his bed, on December 4, 1969. Authorities said the early morning raid was a gun battle, but almost all of the empty shells and bullets recovered at the scene had been fired by police. It’s hard to not think of Breonna Taylor’s similar death in Louisville, Kentucky earlier this year. (The onscreen timeline of these events, however, are different. The film shows Seale being gagged the day after Hampton was killed, when he was actually gagged on October 29 and severed from the case on November 6.)
The film tells the individual stories of most of the eight men—with the voices of Hoffman, Seale, and Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) taking center stage—and it does not deeply examine the internal conflicts within the group. Hayden and Hoffman are shown at odds in how they approach and view not only the trial but how to start a revolution. But because they were charged with conspiracy and working together, showing more of these differences in ideology would have further pressed how ridiculous the trial was in the first place.
The film is not meant to be a documentary, though, and naturally takes creative license, keeping the essence of the real life events—as archival footage and records show. And it ends on a powerful but fictitious note: The group chooses Hayden—the one defendant the judge says has been respectful—to speak on their behalf. The judge tells Hayden that he’ll give a more favorable sentence if his remarks are “respectful,” “remorseful,” and “brief.”
Since the trial started, 4,752 U.S. troops have been killed in Vietnam, Hayden says—before proceeding to read each of their names and ages. And although this dramatized ending did not actually occur this way, it makes a statement: there’s a responsibility to stand up when the world is watching, to remember those who lost their lives, and to say their names. v