Soon, Aaron Sorkin thinks, we’ll all laugh about this over brunch. Or at least that’s the perspective from which he retells the history of the Chicago Seven in his new film. There are two scenes, midway through, that encapsulate the mission he is committed to: During the trial, Judge Julius Hoffman orders one of the defendants, Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale, bound and gagged after he tells Hoffman to “strongly fuck” himself. It’s a disturbing scene, made more unsettling by the fact that unlike many of the events in the film, this event did, in fact, occur during the actual trial. Although Sorkin alters its timeline (he ties Seale’s outburst to the murder of Chicago BBP chairman Fred Hampton, which occurred later), downplays its severity (Seale was actually gagged for multiple days), and erases Seale’s protestations during the incident, the moment is clearly meant to serve as a searing indictment of Hoffman’s racism and general bias regarding the defendants. Shortly after, we see Youth International Party cofounder Abbie Hoffman (no relation to the judge), when questioned by US Attorney Robert Schultz as to whether he has “contempt for his government,” respond by saying, “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.”
It’s important to note that Hoffman never said anything like this during the trial. Given what he did say—things like “I suppose I am not patriotic,” and “[I am] an enemy of the State”—such a portrayal of Hoffman as reverential to American institutions is a calculated choice. Juxtaposed against a scene of brutal court-sanctioned violence against Seale, we might ask, what and for whom does this jingoistic whitewashing of Hoffman’s radical politics serve? Where Sorkin could have accounted for the breadth of the New Left revolutionaries and Black radicals’ oppositional politics, he instead chooses to turn them into earnest proselytizers for American democracy.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 depicts the courtroom drama of the federal government’s prosecution of Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, and Lee Weiner for conspiracy to riot, following the massive protests and confrontations with the police and National Guard at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. With the exception of Froines and Weiner, the Chicago Seven (officially becoming “seven” after Seale’s case was declared a mistrial) were major figures in the New Left: Hayden and Davis with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE); Hoffman and Rubin with the Youth International Party (“Yippies”); Dellinger, a high-profile conscientious objector and anti-war pacifist who founded the Committee for Nonviolent Revolution; and Seale, BPP chairman.
As much as the film is driven by the spectacle of the trial itself, its portrayal of these individuals and their movements also serves as a referendum on how we should remember ’60s-era radicalism in the United States. Sorkin seeks to tame these radicals, and the anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and revolutionary politics they represented (not, of course, without differences among them) by recasting them as boosters for liberal reform. The result is not only an inaccurate rendering of the group’s political visions but a tone-deaf affirmation of the American state, and specifically law enforcement, as fundamentally virtuous.