“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a commentary on systemic injustice and a society resistant to change. Released on Netflix on October 16, 2020, the film offers insight into 1960s counterculture, police brutality, and systemic oppression. The Chicago 7 (originally Chicago 8) was a group of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators charged for inciting a riot during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The group’s trial unfolded over 151 days, challenging conceptions of the U.S. justice system during an era of anti-war sentiment and racial tension. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the film’s strength lies in the retelling of a historical event through the lens of current social issues surrounding the justice system, race and protests. However, the amount of historical context required to understand the film can be daunting for those new to the subject. Caution: there are spoilers ahead.
Unlike many protest films, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” discusses judicial injustices rather than on-the-ground protests by contrasting the defendants with the biased courtroom. Accused of inconsistency and prejudice, Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) charges the defendants and their lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), with contempt of court at his whim. Hoffman repeatedly cites Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party (B.P.P.), with contempt of court for requesting legal representation. From improperly addressing the court to laughing during proceedings, the fate of the defendants are at Judge Hoffman’s beck and call. In one of the most horrific moments of the film, court officials beat, bind, and gag Seale for failure to obey contempt charges. In these moments, the film pulls back the courtroom’s curtain of civility to reveal the ugly and dangerous workings of a system that condones and, at times, abets abuse and injustice.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” unnervingly parallels the present-day American political climate. Shots of Chicago police officers removing their name tags to beat demonstrators bring to mind present scenes of federal officers in Portland throwing protestors into unmarked vehicles in 2020. Riot batons, milk poured on tear-gassed eyes, and neat lines of armed officers populate images of both the 1968 and 2020 protests. In the film, officers crack the skull of Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) leader Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp). During a raid, officers murder Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the B.P.P., as he sleeps in his home. His killing holds some parallels to Breonna Taylor’s death in March of this year, where police officers killed her in her home during a botched execution of a search warrant. Although the circumstances surrounding their deaths are different, the underlying issue of baseless, state-sanctioned violence remains the same. These scenes parallel moments from 2020 in a nation that is, like in 1968, deeply polarized and facing significant change.
The ideological conflict between activist groups demonstrates the film’s focus on diverse reactions to systemic injustice. For instance, S.D.S. leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Youth International Party (Yippies) leader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) differ on their view of the court system. Hayden appeals to the court’s sensitivities, hoping to achieve a favourable trial result. He dresses formally, respects the immoral judge, and believes he can sway the court if he behaves. On the other hand, Abbie Hoffman believes that the court will find the group guilty no matter how strong their case. He repeatedly refers to the trial as a “political trial” and insults the court in rebellion. Hoffman’s attitude towards the court reveals the shallow theatricality of the trial. The courtroom is biased to the extent where it is no longer a forum for justice, but rather a theater where a system with ulterior motives hides its immorality behind protocol.
Despite its stellar cast and script, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” faces the giant task of condensing 1960s social context, a 151-day trial, and compelling storytelling into two hours. Some aspects of the film may be difficult to grasp on first viewing. The film’s premise is established with a brief and superficial introduction to most of the film’s main characters. The fragmented introduction makes this film partially inaccessible to those in the audience who may not have a full understanding of social unrest in the 1960s. While the film clarifies the confusion later on and improves on re-watch, a deluge of contextually dependent information at the beginning may put off the first-time viewer. Brushing up on the history prior to watching is recommended.
In the final scene of the film, Hayden reads the closing arguments. Judge Hoffman tempts him with a shortened sentence if he follows the rules. In protest, Hayden reads out a 5,000 name-long record of soldiers killed in Vietnam from the time of their protest to the trial. As Judge Hoffman slams his gavel in vain, shouting for order, more members of the courtroom stand in solidarity. Even the lead prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) rises to salute the fallen. The film closes on the image of a powerful crowd facing a panicked Judge Hoffman desperate to remain in control. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a timely and necessary reminder of the true power of a broken system, the pain it inflicts, and the ways to oppose it under difficult circumstances.
This film receives a 5/5 for its powerful storytelling, cultural relevance, and unflinching portrayal of systemic violence in the US.