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Movie Review: 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Since 1987, four different movies have tried to make sense of the events that took place at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 during which hundreds of anti-war demonstraters were beaten by the police, resulting in the notorious Chicago 7 trial starring Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix is the latest.

The basic story is the police, ordered by Mayor Richard Daley, were out of contriol. A riot in the streets outside of the Hilton hotel ensued as the convention went on and was noted by several state delegations. Organized by the Youth International Party (Yippies) and the Student Mobilization Committee, protesters gathered in the city's Grant Park prior to and during the convention fort the Festival for Peace. Each night thousands of people were rousted from the park with Chicago PD becoming increasingly violent, wantonly flailing at youngsters with their clubs. The real footage and the reenactments in The Trial are bloody and gruesome.

The "Chicago 7" appeal is the defendants, which included Hoffman, Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner and John Froines. In the case of Pinches Perry's The Chicago 8 (2011), the group also included Bobby Seale, who's a key character in all four movies. The Black Panther, played powerfully by Yahya Abdul-Mateen in The Trial, argues that he should be able to defend himself to no avail; Seale's bound and gagged and finally separated from the case, hence the "7" designation. Brett Morgan's Chicago 10 (2007) included Seale and lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman and John Carroll Lynch as Dave Dellinger in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

Hoffman and Rubin provide comic relief to to the more grounded Hayden, Dellinger and Davis. Casting Sacha Baron Cohen as Hoffman is fairly brilliant, a comedian playing the Yippie jester with flair. While Rubin (Jeremy Strong) gets the dufus treatment, Hayden's branded as headstrong and too careful. His penultimate showdown with Hoffman, officiated by Kunstler (Mark Rylance), is a bummer (and not necessarily accurate).

Judge Julius Hoffman's courtroom antics are key to this saga. At times it's like the zany courtroom scene in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, with Abbie as Groucho egging on the judge with jokes and taunts. Sorkin calls on old reliable Frank Langella, as Hoffman, to antagonize the defendants and lawyers with his irascible proclamations.

Jerry Rubin: "This trial is the Academy Awards of protests."

There are several other problems with Sorkin's version. It features a virtually all male cast. In additon to Seale, the court is packed with fellow Black Panthers, including Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). But mostl of the focus is on the white defendants. What will 2020 protesters learn from The of Trial of the Chicago 7? That it was a primarily white, male, middle-class movement that took its cues from anarchists and academics.

The best of the four "Chicago 7" movies is Jeremy Kagan's Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (1987). He combines documentary footage, scripted scenes and defendant commentaries to tell the complicated story of unbridled police brutality that took place in Chicago, like what happened to the civil-right protesters in Alabama.

PS: Several years after Hoffman, Rubin, Hayden, Dellinger and Davis were convicted of inciting a riot and sentenced to up to five year each, the case was dismissed on appeal.

 

Watch "Conspiracy"

 

Watch "Chicago 10"

 

Watch "The Chicago 8" Trailer

 

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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.