What can a new generation of activists learn from ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’?

Tharini Prakash

Aaron Sorkin’s second film as both director and writer, The Trial of the Chicago 7, sheds light on a highly relevant historical event: the trial of eight men charged with conspiracy for inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. While delivering on the snappy “I-wish-I-had-said-that” dialogue and political overtones he is best known for, Sorkin manages to portray the inequalities within the justice system and the most famous parts of the trial with countless thrilling moments and plenty of humor.

The film follows the monthslong trial coordinated by Nixon’s Justice Department and portrays the often unbelievable characters and moments in court. While the events of the courtroom are the focus of the film, the flashbacks of the riots and lead up to the convention paint an electrifying picture of anti-Vietnam protests and militarized police violence, both showcasing great performances by most of the cast. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II perfectly portrays the frustration and anger of real-life Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panthers. Despite not being involved in the planning of the riots, he was charged alongside the seven by the Justice Department to make the group look even more radical, before eventually having his case declared a mistrial. Jeremy Strong leaves behind any traces of his most famous role, rich-boy Kendall Roy from Succession, by leaning into the facial hair and laid back hippie inflections of Jerry Rubin, an anti-war and counterculture activist. Also notable are Mark Rylance as defense lawyer William Kunstler and Kelvin Harrison Jr., who makes the most of the few minutes that Fred Hampton, activist and Black Panther member, is portrayed on screen. Somewhat less impressive are performances from Eddie Redmayne, whose anti-war activist Tom Hayden feels a step away from a real person, and Sacha Baron Cohen, whose accent (Boston? New York? It’s actually Worcester.) often detracts from an empathetic, spirited, and otherwise strong depiction of Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party.

The film’s dialogue is certainly less Sorkin-y than his previous work in Molly’s Game and The Social Network since most of the protagonists are not concerned with touting their intellectual superiority. But, Sorkin can’t resist including moments of (sometimes cheesy, rarely nuanced) self-righteousness and over-simplified shows of noble resistance, making the culmination of the film, which includes a unifying slow clap in the courtroom, fall a bit flat. 

The flashbacks are the best part of the movie, with huge setpieces that capture the adrenaline and rage of the police-protest clashes, alongside Hoffman humorously narrating the flashiest moments of the plot during a post protest stand up routine. The courtroom scenes are also thoroughly entertaining, surprising, and will leave previously unfamiliar viewers thinking there’s no way that could have happened. 

More importantly however, is the relevance of the story. While the foundation of the trial relied on the predominant narrative that protesters had started the violence, the film accurately shows the police instigating the violence and even taking off their badges and name tags to be completely unrestrained. They brutally beat and tear gas crowds after strategically cornering protesters on the streets with help from undercover police agents, drawing strong parallels to the present day protests also taking place during a contentious presidential election. The judge for the trial, Julius Hoffman, exhibited obvious bias and belligerence towards the prosecution, and at one point ordered Seale to be bound and gagged in the courtroom after he kept speaking out of turn. The image is disturbing, shocking and accurate to the real life events, but by no means new. 

These depictions are expected of any film capturing the events of the ’60s, and Sorkin doesn’t have much new to say about them or any thoughtful criticism of the institutions responsible, beyond just showing them on screen. However, it is a valuable education for young people for whom these events are unknown, as well as anyone seeking out the same change as the men put on trial. 

While all seven were found guilty (although all had their cases eventually overturned), they used their spotlight to draw attention to the unjust deaths from the Vietnam War and mock the pageantry of the American justice system. There are also numerous disputes between Redmayne and Baron Cohen’s characters about effective strategies and the goals of liberal politics that align with the contemporary divides within the Democratic party.

As unbelievable as some moments are, the chaos of the era makes for an ultimately enjoyable film with timely themes, and provides a simplified blueprint for the activists and future revolutionaries of this generation. It is also a reminding jolt for continued action bolstered by the 1986 protesters chanting something timeless: “The world is watching.” The same could be said of the protesters today.