When you first hit ‘play’ on The Trial of The Chicago 7, you begin the movie-viewing experience with the assumptions that in the movie you would find dramatic scenes to refer to your neighbourhood RSS supporters, who would not for the life of them believe in a thing such as police brutality or your progressive colleagues who “do not hate Muslims” but believe Jamia students were responsible for the violence last year, even with the lack of evidence to support the claim. As the film progresses, you realise it has more to offer than the notable similarity between what happened in the summer of 1968, Chicago and the winter of 2019, Jamia Nagar.
The Trial of The Chicago 7 opens with frenzied scenes in monochrome from the Vietnam War which makes you wonder if this courtroom drama is yet another medley of a movie and a documentary that would bore you before you are finished with it. Nonetheless, drawn by the intriguing personalities of the jovial Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), the pair which playfully balances the solemnity student activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) exude, we resist from impulsively clicking the exit button and losing the opportunity to learn from the lessons this masterpiece serves.
Contrary to the popular trends going on social media where people identify which Indian political leader has the closest resemblance to each of the characters on trial, I have categorised the movie into three major sub-plots that I feel are its highlights—the ideological conflict between Tom and Abbie over the significance of a cultural revolution alongside a political revolution, the trial scenes that reflect the political nature of criminal trials and the defining role of the state machinery in either channelling or aggravating public outrage—a perspective with which even the movie’s director, Aaron Sorkin would nod his head in agreement.
Giving an insight into the process behind bringing together the myriad protagonists, all of whom lent a different hue to the anti-Vietnam war protests at the Democratic Convention held in Chicago, Aaron says, “I had organized the film into three stories… One was the courtroom drama. The other was the evolution of the riot. A third story was the more personal story between Abbie and Tom.”
The historic trial of the Conspiracy 8, as they were popularly known, commences with the overwhelming chants of “The whole world is watching.” At the very beginning of the trial, the state prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) makes a point that the protesters put on trial would try to prove that they all belong to three distinct groups with separate purposes.
However, he insists that it is a bogus claim and all of the riot-accused were headed towards Chicago with one clear purpose in mind. All of the protesters indeed had one sole idea they wished to impress upon the politically influential class of the United States—End the war! Schultz, appointed to prove the defendants charged with incitement of riot by the new Attorney General John M. Mitchell, could not be more right when he contended that they had one end goal. Apart from that, the rest of the movie seems like an effort to thwart his former statement.
David Dellinger, a conscientious pacifist who was associated with organisations such as War Resisters League and Committee for Non-violent Revolution, actively applied Gandhian principles of non-violence in his anti-war political activism. Dellinger, supported by Rennie and Tom of the Students for Democratic Society civil organisation formed one unit that belonged to that section of American society that believes in reforms through electoral politics—means that did not require attacking the fundamental structure of America’s socio-political fabric.
In stark contrast to this squad of patriots, stands the Black Panther Bobby Seale, who wants nothing to do with the Chicago 7. He is radical, he is bold and he is not afraid to choose violence as his tool but most importantly, he is black. Not the one who would bow down against the racist American judiciary, dominated by the whites and make peace with indignity. In a thought-provoking exchange between Hayden and Seale in the prison cell, he makes him realise how the patriarch in white families embodies the American institution—dictating, authoritative and demanding of unconditional obedience and how the whole life of white radical activists is a rebellion against not just the state but their conservative fathers who held them caged.
For the blacks, however, the fight becomes more than a struggle for sluggish reforms that takes decades. Their struggle is for revolutionising the American society that is founded on racial injustice, slavery and neo-colonisation. Seale is the one who can look the judge into his eye as opposed to Hayden, who stands up in the court at the call of “All rise!” because abidance with the system is a “virtue” he is conditioned with.
Striking a balance between the two, come the band of stoned and cheerful Yippies, Abbie and Jerry who could not seem to care less about the fact that their comical theatrics could land them in jail. Much to the annoyance of Hayden, they talk about fighting fire with fire, magic beans and show up dressed as cops at the trial. Outrageously enough, they also name a price to call off the revolution on national television—their life. The ideological rift between the proponents of a cultural revolution and political revolution creates tensions within the group which eventually evolves into a physical tussle between Hayden and Abbie.
Tired of disproportionate allegations by Tom, Abbie shows him how they were handpicked for the trial, among a mob of protesters. Aware of how their political affiliations and cultural identities played a huge role in their arrests, Abbie asks him to recognise the relevance of their social identities the next time he “brushes off cultural revolution” as something secondary to a political revolution.
The eight defendants juggle with all sorts of curveballs the biased judiciary and prosecutors throw at them—from rigging the jury to countless charges of contempt of court for merely objecting, from FBI officers who had infiltrated the group of protesters giving false statements to ultimately, withholding the jury from hearing the statement of Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General at the time of the 1968 riot who testifies in favour of the Conspiracy 8 and discloses the proven role of the police in mishandling the riot.
The brutal reality of the state-manipulated judiciary, represented by Justice Hoffman that had already declared all the defendants guilty in their mind, pushes even Dellinger to punch the bailiff. Thereby, breaking the one principle he held dear—non-violence. Throughout the trial, one witnesses the evolution of the defendants and then the ultimate bouncer comes, the audiotape where a Hayden enraged at the manhandling of Davis by the police, gives a call to march towards the Democratic Convention forcing people to clash with the police head-on.
“If blood is gonna flow, let it flow all over the city!”
The violent collisions between the raging protesters and the indifferently cold police batons charging at them bring back the bloodiest memories from Jamia university last year. The Trial of The Chicago 7 accurately shows how a peaceful demonstration, intended to be an instrument to express dissent unfolds into a violent affair if the people are not given a place to protest in a democratic country, as was the case with Major Daley who refuses the protesters the permission to demonstrate.
It shows how no protest is successful in sending across a powerful message unless it disrupts the day-to-day civil life. The film gives an insight into the responsibility that comes with organising mass demonstrations and clears the misconception that it is a spontaneous coming together of people. Mass protests are a crowd of frustrated people with volatile emotions who can give any shape to the protest. It is the imperative of the state to keep the crowd in check and this desired peace is never achieved through brutal suppression of civil liberties of citizens.
The most enigmatic part of the movie perhaps comes at the end when we finally see Abbie in the witness box, lending a peek into his perception of the events that transpired. You let out a chuckle when he ridicules the traditional American education system, and laugh a bit harder when he calls the protest a “massive voter registration drive”. He makes the people hearing him realise how things far more dangerous than protests, happen under the careful watch of the government—human trafficking, arms trade, wars in which civilians and soldiers suffer alike. He unveils the hypocrisy of the average American who judges dissenters of the government but refrains from holding accountable the people in power who steal their rights inch by inch, with wit and humour.
The only statement that somewhat robs the essence of Abbie’s revolutionary ideas away from it is the part where he says, “I think the institutions of democracy are wonderful things that are right now populated by some terrible people.” The Abbie you know from reading his work, Steal This Book, would have to muster up real courage to cough up these words in favour of a liberal democracy, rooted in a capitalist economic order. It was a particularly difficult job for me to imagine a revolutionary who writes, “America is built on the slaughter of people. That is its history,” and urges people to “destroy” the system that favours the bourgeoisie, saying that.
If this scene in The Trial of The Chicago 7 compels you to raise a brow, wait for the following scene which will have you shake your head in disapproval. Tom Hayden moves a notch up from revealing his subservient American patriot nature to honouring the American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. The same Vietnam War during which some highly objectionable human rights were committed violations against the Vietnamese people, for which the American troops are notorious. At this moment, prosecutor Schultz also gets up to show respect for the slain soldiers who had till now exhibited no signs of morals, knowing full well that prosecuting the protesters would be considered a breach of their civil rights to dissent.
Regardless of the fallacies of the Chicago 7 (Seale’s case is ultimately declared a mistrial), they struggle in their own different ways to achieve what they set out to do. The ideological conflicts that are present among them is true for the Indian left as well. Contrary to how the right-wing conservatives view leftists, there are multiple factions within them, each of whom subscribes to an ideology distinct from the other. I believe the constant debate within the Left should be kept alive as well, a discussion from which logical solutions spring up.
The movie paints a beautiful picture of this healthy exchange of ideas which takes the form of a lively banter at times for the audience’s delight. Abbie and Jerry teach us how to struggle for a revolution is not to give up on romantic love, to forget how to laugh but to laugh and love while waging that fight with your comrades. They personify Mao Tse-tung’s lines,
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
As Abbie says, for a revolution to happen, we may have to hurt someone’s feelings. More often than not, it is to hurt our father who we love. It is to wreak havoc on the institutions held in high regard.