The Trial of the Chicago 7: Fifty Years Later We’re Still Living in 1968 America
Oppressive authority lives and its language is universal
When I was a child, I always wished I had grown up in the 60s. I loved the idea of rising up against war and hate, while listening to kick-ass music, and smoking lots of weed. Now that America is experiencing a new wave of civil rights, I find it far more unsettling than the anti-establishment glamour I read about in history books. We spent the summer of 2020 watching American citizens brutalized by police as millions marched for black lives. We saw tear gas used on children, rubber bullets hit the elderly, and I personally have donated to more than one GoFundMe for friends harmed by the police while protesting. Perhaps it’s for these reasons that watching The Trial of the Chicago 7 felt more immediate and personal to me in a way I never felt watching footage of Woodstock as a kid.
“When I was a child, I always wished I had grown up in the 60s. I loved the idea of rising up against war and hate, while listening to kick-ass music, and smoking lots of weed.”
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is based on real-life events, written and directed by the legendary Aaron Sorkin. The architect of The West Wing, The Social Network, and the effervescent Will McAvoy of The Newsroom, Mr. Sorkin taking the helm of this film feels like a call to action in America’s current state of chaos and division.
As the film opens, we see several groups of organizers planning to protest the 1968 Democratic Convention, including Students for a Democratic Society, the “Yippies,” and the Black Panthers. Why were left-leaning groups protesting what is in recent U.S. history, the more liberal party? Similar to the progressive groups of today’s America being skeptical of Joe Biden, they ask, are moderate policies muddying the water and slowing us down when real, meaningful change is urgently needed? In 1968, as the draft in Vietnam raged on, they certainly thought so.
RELATED: The Strange Case of Donald Trump
The events of the protests that ensued are told slowly as the trial unfolds under a tyrannical, biased judge played by Frank Langella. One of the most talented actors of his generation, I can’t recall a time when Frank Langella played a likable character. On the prosecution side, we have Joseph Gordon Levitt, who has made a career of playing a guy we all love. JGL gives one of the more interesting performances of his filmography playing a lawyer on the wrong side of history with a moral compass.
The actual defendants are chock-full of brilliant performances, the standouts being Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, founding member of the Youth International Party and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, National Chairman of the Black Panther Party. Cohen shines as the court’s most entertaining antagonist and a guy so cool that he marches on Chicago in a robe with a drink in hand. Abdul-Mateen gives a heart-wrenching performance throughout, culminating in one of the most disturbing scenes to watch, as Seale is bound and gagged in court, all the more chilling to find that the real-life court scene was much worse.
As the viewer experiences the events of the protests through courtroom prep, witness testimonies, and flashbacks, the boiling point of revelation comes in dramatic waves, beautifully shot as we watch what really went down, as peaceful, unarmed protesters, asking for peace while riding a buzz, are met with the full force of the Chicago police, ready to beat them within an inch of their lives.
Aaron Sorkin has always had a special talent for telling political stories with intelligence and tension, while never abandoning humor that makes the darkness more palatable. The Trial of the Chicago 7 keeps that streak of his balancing act strong and formidable. It’s important to note that this movie isn’t only for U.S. history enthusiasts. Viewers with zero knowledge of the events of the film will have no trouble understanding the plot and enjoying the ups and downs of one of the most sensational trials in history, with a cast stacked with talent. My first thought jumped to the current climate of the United States, where only days ago protesters and counter protesters were stabbing each other in the nation’s capital. But the message and allure of this film is anything but exclusive to Americans. The language of oppressive authority is universal.
Regardless of where you’re from, if you’ve ever felt the weight of your government heavy on your chest, you’ll relate to the power of this film and admire those who had the courage and conviction to rage against the machine.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes you gasp, it makes you laugh, and it makes you think. In the film’s most pivotal scene, we see protesters washing tear gas from their eyes with milk, and it struck me that only six months ago, major cities in the U.S. had stores running out of dairy for this very purpose. Fifty years may have passed, but we clearly haven’t come very far.
Stream The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix.
Words Nicole Caliro
Art Alexandra Lara