As the first trailer for the new Netflix film The Trial of the Chicago 7 opens, Eddie Redmayne, as activist Tom Hayden, tells the assembled press, “We want to underscore again that we’re coming to Chicago peacefully; but whether we’re given permits or not, we’re coming.”
Of course, precisely such a statement could have been uttered about Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, in the spring of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. But this was 1968, and they were headed for the Democratic National Convention, driven 52 years ago by essentially the same underlying ideology. Back then, it was specifically the Vietnam War, rather than racial injustice, that ignited the protests—but these so-called “United” States of America were anything but…and the socio-political divisions were at that time equally tearing the country in two.
We then see Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Daniel Flaherty as Jon Froines, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, and most pricelessly, Sasha Baron Cohen as the fantastically fro’d Abbie Hoffman, just four of they who made up the infamous Chicago 7. All were put on trial afterwards for inciting riots—while protesting the war, obviously—at that year’s DNC.
An official looking document is seen being typed up with the words “obscenities, drugs, sex,” and “their attempts to destroy American society,” reminding that post-WWII, it has always pretty much been a culture war. But before everything actually kicks off in the Windy City, someone is heard asking Hoffman, “Abbie, are you concerned about an over-reaction from the cops?” Then the words “Holy shit,” accompany the image of a veritable Roman legion of men in blue sent to break up their protest party. (Very 2020…)
Fast forward to the courtroom, and Abdul-Mateen as Seale states, “My trial has begun without my lawyer.” To which Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) sardonically replies, “The court assumes you are being represented by the Black Panther sitting behind you.”
If you weren’t impressed enough already by the casting, the camera turns to Michael Keaton as suit-and-tie liberal activist Ramsey Clark telling the court, “The riots were started by the Chicago police.” (Hmm, sound familiar?) Stated skepticism about whether the trial would actually generate any public interest gives way to thousands shouting in the streets—with fists raised—”The whole world is watching!” And indeed they were.
Curiously, the genesis of the film was an Aaron Sorkin visit to Steven Spielberg’s house all the way back in 2007, with the latter suggesting the idea to bring the story to the big screen. After the writers’ strike in that same year halted production for more than a decade, it will at last see release this October 16, with Sorkin having directed, and Spielberg acting as executive producer
Nice timing, obviously.