By Greg Burris.
Whereas the previous films sought to emphasize Seale’s struggle, The Trial of the Chicago 7 diminishes it. In Sorkin’s directorial hands, Seale’s chains are turned into a plot devise, and they function primarily to bolster the film’s main concern: a war within the white left.”
My initial encounter with the image of Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale as he sat bound, gagged, and chained to a chair at the so-called Chicago Conspiracy Trial in October 1969 left me shaken. This image first came to me in the form of a drawing – a courtroom sketch that briefly fills the screen in the documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (2009). This was a powerful illustration – a symbol of both white oppression and Black defiance. It captivated me, and for the next several years, I attempted to collect every cultural reference and film ever produced about Seale’s courtroom ordeal. Like many of those who actually witnessed Seale’s struggle, I saw this as an event rife with mythic potential, as if Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, or even Prometheus himself had been bound in that Chicago courtroom. I therefore watched the recent Netflix film about the trial, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), with great anticipation. There could hardly be a better time to return to this forgotten historical episode, and in our current era of renewed racial violence and #BlackLivesMatter protests, Seale’s struggle against his chains has the potential to resonate more strongly than ever before. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. While the film has generated a great deal of positive chatter and even Oscar buzz, something about it left me cold. My misgivings began with the opening sequence in which dramatic, era-defining events like the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the napalming of the Vietnamese countryside are set against music akin to a TV game show jingle. However, my apprehensions did not truly crystalize until later on, when Seale was bound and gagged. It seemed like the gravity and emotional force of Seale’s courtroom defiance had somehow been diminished. Something important had been lost. Why?
With the film’s release, there has already been an avalanche of think pieces and reviews comparing it to the historical record. Sorkin’s film certainly plays fast and loose with the facts: the defense attorney William Kunstler, for instance, was a far more flamboyant and theatrical figure than the film lets on, and his adversary – the septuagenarian Judge Julius Hoffman – was a much smaller, shriller man whose squeaky voice invited comparisons to Mr. Magoo; Yippie activist Jerry Rubin did not teach schoolchildren to make bombs, he was not arrested while preventing a rape in Grant Park, and his main FBI tail was a man, not a woman; and while a jury member was indeed spotted holding a James Baldwin book, she was not one of the jurors targeted with threatening letters allegedly sent by the Black Panther Party.
Of course, all films necessarily take artistic liberties. This is especially true in the case of an event as massive and complex as the Chicago Conspiracy Trial – a trial which lasted nearly five months, included the testimonies of over two hundred witnesses, and generated an official transcript that is over 22,000 pages long. In such a case, the question is not whether a film distorts or embellishes history but how it does so and why. While some of The Trial of the Chicago 7’s alterations seem rather anodyne – for instance, its depiction of defendant Lee Weiner as a baby-faced do-gooder instead of a bushy bearded Marxist – other changes are more obviously objectionable. The film completely erases the contributions of women to the events in Chicago, and just as activists like Judy “Gumbo” Clavir, Anita Hoffman, and Nancy Kurshan were ignored by a sexist federal government, so too do they go overlooked in Sorkin’s film. Moreover, committed pacifist David Dellinger never punched anyone in the trial, and by making him violent and turning his courtroom arrest into a sob story about a father disappointing his son, the film trivializes Dellinger’s principled stand and even gives justification to the judge’s decision to revoke his bail. (In the real trial, Dellinger was arrested after exclaiming “bullshit” during the testimony of a witness.) However, none of the film’s changes and distortions perturbed me quite as much as the way it dealt with the chaining and gagging of Bobby Seale.
By all accounts, Seale’s struggle with Judge Hoffman over the right to defend himself constituted the Conspiracy Trial’s most dramatic event. Abbie Hoffman later wrote that “what happened to Seale was far and away the most significant episode of the trial.” Dellinger similarly viewed it as the trial’s defining event, and he claimed that he only began to speak out in court after witnessing the confrontation between Seale and the judge. Importantly, the power of Seale’s defiance did not stay confined to the courtroom, and even though no cameras captured this incident on film, it rippled throughout popular culture. Seale’s ordeal was recreated in stage plays; it was mentioned in songs by Gil Scott-Heron and Graham Nash; it was the inspiration behind artist David Hammons’ body print Injustice Case; it was dramatized on a spoken word record, Gagged and Chained; it was showcased in radical films like Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971) and Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Vladimir et Rosa (1971); and it was even parodied in the gags donned by Woody Allen and Divine in the courtroom scenes of Bananas (1971) and Female Trouble (1974).
Despite the obvious symbolic force of this moment, Seale’s ordeal poses problems for any director wishing to make a film version of the trial. The judge ordered Seale gagged just a few weeks into the five-month affair, and this early occurrence flies in the face of good storytelling. How does one make a film in which the most climactic event takes place at the beginning of the narrative? In order to surmount this obstacle, filmmakers typically adopt one of two approaches. In some cases, they change the trial chronology so that Seale’s gagging does not occur until the end. This is the case with Chicago 10 (2007), and that film concludes with a crescendo of violence in which footage from the 1968 protests is cross-cut with an animated version of the trial, thus allowing the police riot and Seale’s gagging to take place simultaneously.
Other films set this event apart from the rest of the trial through formal techniques. For instance, while HBO’s Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (1987) sticks to a more historically accurate timeline, it emphasizes Seale’s ordeal with a peculiar shot. Just before Seale is brought into the courtroom in chains, the camera performs a slow 360 degree rotation around the set, and the shot even reveals members of the production crew. This unusual sequence punctuates the actions taking place in the courtroom, and even if Seale’s gagging occurs a full hour before the film’s conclusion, it still serves as the narrative’s emotional lynchpin. One of the earliest film versions of the trial, The Great Chicago Conspiracy Circus (1970), adopts both of these approaches, placing Seale’s struggle towards the end of the trial and presenting this scene in slow-motion.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 faces this same dilemma. Rather than emphasizing Seale’s struggle through timeline alterations or experimental film form, however, Sorkin’s film takes a drastically different path. Whereas the previous films sought to emphasize Seale’s struggle, The Trial of the Chicago 7 diminishes it. In Sorkin’s directorial hands, Seale’s chains are turned into a plot devise, and they function primarily to bolster the film’s main concern: a war within the white left. Thus, if other films located the trial’s central antagonism in the conflict between Seale and Judge Hoffman, Sorkin places that antagonism elsewhere, in the divisions between the other defendants: mainstream liberals versus countercultural radicals, establishment Democrats versus the lunatic fringe, Tom Hayden versus Abbie Hoffman. In order to prevent Seale’s struggle from overshadowing this other drama, it has to be tempered and contained. The Chicago Eight has to become the Chicago Seven.
This numeric shift is not innocent, and even the title of the film excludes Seale. While The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the sixth feature film to tackle the Conspiracy Trial, it is the first to identify the defendants in this manner. Early on, there is an attempt to justify this miscount, and Seale’s character claims that the defendants are already being called the Chicago Seven while he is still one of them. This is an historically false assertion. The defendants only became collectively known as the Chicago Seven after Seale’s case was severed from the others. Identifying them in this way has the perverse effect of marginalizing Seale, and Jerry Rubin even claimed that calling them the Chicago Seven was racist.
This miscount is not the only way that The Trial of the Chicago 7 sidelines Seale, and the film also significantly alters the tone and content of his courtroom rhetoric. Throughout the first half of the film, Seale’s words remain relatively tame. He occasionally rises to his feet to cross-examine a witness, and each time he is sternly admonished. While Seale is persistent, he does not openly curse or attack the judge, and it is only after fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton is murdered that Seale loses his composure. In the actual trial, Seale’s rhetoric was more inflammatory. “You think black people don’t have a mind,” Seale announced. “Well we got big minds, good minds, and we know how to come forth with constitutional rights.” After a month of battling Judge Hoffman, Seale resorted to open defiance, accusing the judge of being a puppet of Richard Nixon and denouncing him as a racist, a fascist, and a bigot.
Significantly, Seale’s admonitions went beyond the particular context of his trial. Pointing to the portraits decorating the courtroom, Seale declared to the judge, “You have George Washington and Benjamin Franklin sitting in a picture behind you, and they was slave owners. That’s what they were. They owned slaves. You are acting in the same manner, denying me my constitutional rights.” On another occasion, he went after the myths of popular fiction, denouncing “this racist administrative Government with its superman notions and comicbook politics. We’re hip to the fact that Superman never saved no black people.” The Trial of the Chicago 7 erases all of this. Seale’s interjections remain limited to his request for his rights, and he certainly does not connect the dots between the judge’s actions and the broader context of white supremacy.
This brings us to one of The Trial of the Chicago 7’s most curious inventions, the prominent role it gives to Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairperson of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Without a lawyer to represent him, Seale relies on Hampton for legal help. He sits behind Seale in the courtroom and occasionally whispers words of advice. The day after Hampton is murdered by a squad of Chicago police officers, Seale breaks down. He turns to the audience in the courtroom behind him and emotionally laments his friend’s death. At this point, Judge Hoffman attempts to silence Seale with a warning: “I strongly caution you.” Seale responds with a blunt retort, telling the judge to “strongly fuck yourself.” It is only with this obscene pronouncement, with this insult to his person, that the judge orders Seale chained and gagged.
This entire treatment of Hampton is sheer fabrication. While Hampton did visit the trial and occasionally meet with the defendants on Seale’s behalf, he never served as Seale’s legal counsel. His primary involvement with the case occurred outside the courtroom’s walls when he addressed the crowds that had gathered to protest Seale’s chains. As his presence at these demonstrations indicates, Hampton’s assassination did not trigger Seale’s outbursts in court. Indeed, Seale was gagged more than a month before Hampton’s death. Moreover, while the film implies Hampton’s innocence, it leaves out the more incriminating details – the fact that Hampton had been drugged by an FBI informant before the raid and that he was shot in his sleep while lying next to his pregnant girlfriend. While I welcome the fresh attention that The Trial of the Chicago 7 brings to this horrific episode of U.S. history – especially at a time when people across the country are taking to the streets to protest the police murders of other Black people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd – Hampton’s tragic saga is too substantial to be neatly folded into a film about the Conspiracy Trial. By bringing Hampton’s murder and Seale’s chains together in this way, Sorkin’s film ends up diminishing both events. Seale’s outbursts in court were not angry displays of grief over the murder of a friend. They were demands for constitutional rights.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 also substantially shortens the duration of Seale’s struggle. In the film, Seale’s chains certainly make for a grisly spectacle – so grisly, in fact, that they hardly stay on at all. Almost as soon as Seale is brought back into the courtroom, the judge declares a mistrial. The chaining and gagging of Seale thus appear as a fleeting episode, and it seems to last just a matter of minutes. In reality, the ordeal was far more gruesome, and the judge attempted to restore normalcy to the trial as the sole Black defendant sat chained to his chair. This went on for three days of proceedings. Throughout this time, Seale frequently found the strength to speak through his gags, and the court marshals repeatedly took him out of the room to tighten his bonds. Seale did not happily comply with his punishment, and the trial transcript records him complaining about the marshals beating him as they tried to force him into submission. Through it all, Seale’s defiance could not be deterred. Indeed, Seale even issued a muffled command to Kunstler when he rose to contest the gags: “You don’t represent me. Sit down, Kunstler.”
In the film, the other defendants sit in silence. Their only response to this ongoing horror show is to pass notes to each other and agree to not stand for the judge – an agreement that Tom Hayden is unable to keep. Outrageously, the film’s only character to significantly protest Seale’s treatment is the prosecuting attorney, Richard Schultz, and he immediately asks the judge to declare a mistrial. The trial transcript tells a very different tale. Rather than sitting silently, the seven other defendants and their two lawyers reacted strongly to the cruel spectacle before them, and almost a third of their total contempt citations stemmed from this three-day period of the five-month trial. Kunstler denounced the court for becoming “a medieval torture chamber”; Abbie Hoffman described it as a “neon oven”; Rennie Davis told the jury that Seale was being tortured out of their view; Dellinger threw himself between Seale and the officers to protect him; and Rubin got into a physical scuffle with a marshal, yelling “Don’t hit me in the balls, motherfucker!” All of this is completely eradicated in Sorkin’s film, and even the one dramatic action that the script allows – the defendants refusing to rise for the judge – appears pathetically weak when compared with the court record. In the actual trial, such defiance was not new. All seven of the white defendants, including Hayden, had already dispensed with that nod to court decorum on the very first day of the case.
All of these aspects of the film – the shift from eight to seven, the sanitization of Seale’s rhetoric, the inclusion of Fred Hampton, the reduction of Seale’s chaining from days to minutes, and the timidity of the other defendants – have the cumulative effect of diminishing Seale’s struggle. Whereas virtually every previous portrayal of the Conspiracy Trial puts the chaining of Seale at the very heart of the narrative and imbues his gags with meaning, treating them as a symbol for other forms of political oppression that extend beyond Seale’s particular case, The Trial of the Chicago 7 breaks with this precedent. In Sorkin’s script, the mythic dimension is vanquished. Unlike virtually every other film to deal with the trial – from the militant (Vladimir et Rosa) to the milquetoast (The Chicago 8 ) – his absence does not cast a shadow over the remainder of the proceedings. Once Seale is ejected from the courtroom, his saga is over. He has served his purpose. By forcing a situation in which the other defendants have to choose whether to sit or stand for the judge, Seale sets the stage for the film’s main confrontation, the conflict between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman.
The Hayden-Hoffman strife is already brewing from the beginning of the film, but after Seale’s ejection from court, it takes over the narrative. At one point, the two defendants almost come to physical blows. Of course, at the actual trial, there were tensions between the various defendants, and Hayden in particular was opposed to the more theatrical aspects of the defense. This put him on a collision course with the others, particularly Hoffman, and these tensions far outlived the actual trial. In his autobiography, Hoffman went so far as to derisively refer to Hayden as “Uncle Tom Hayden,” and when I had the chance to sit down with Hayden in early 2012 to chat about the trial, he still seemed mad at Abbie. However, no other film about the trial has ever elevated this friction to the level of main event, and in Sorkin’s hands, the resolution of this conflict leads to the resolution of the film itself.
In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Hoffman turns out to be less wild than his antics imply. He admits that his outrageous pranks and hijinks are really just attempts to raise money for the cause, and he testifies at the trial that his organizing efforts in Chicago had essentially been a giant voter drive. Importantly, Hayden also bends. The liberal gradually becomes more liberal, and if Hayden had previously been unwilling to defy the judge over his treatment of Seale, the trial ends with Hayden heroically reading the names of dead U.S. soldiers into the court record.
To be clear, the problem is not just that Sorkin’s film takes artistic liberties with the source material. All films necessarily do, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is definitely not the first film to give its own subjective slant to the actions that took place in Judge Hoffman’s courtroom. On this point, Chicago 10 is particularly notable, and its director Brett Morgen openly admitted that he was using the icons and images of the sixties in order to address the political issues of his own time, specifically the presidency of George W. Bush and the disastrous war in Iraq. Sorkin’s script, however, operates in a very different political register, and in his hands, the events of the trial become part of a long line of liberal attempts to tame the left. That is, the film tries to put the radical genies that the sixties unleashed back into the bottle.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 thus concludes with a triumph for liberalism. The radicals have acquiesced to Hayden’s leadership, and Hayden, in turn, has rediscovered his moral compass. This triumph, however, is purchased at a tremendous price: the evisceration of sixties radicalism. A casual viewer of the film would have no idea just how radical these defendants actually were. Abbie Hoffman was somehow both funnier and more serious than Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal would have us believe. Having already penned tracts with titles like Fuck the System and Revolution for the Hell of It by the time of the trial, Hoffman could hardly be confused for someone who was overly concerned with voter turnout. Hoffman wanted revolution. This also goes for Tom Hayden, and he was not quite the square that the film makes him out to be. Whereas the film has him standing up for the judge at the moment Seale was shackled, Hayden actually used the occasion to speak out, and he declared that “Seale should not be put in the position of slavery.” Thus, The Trial of the Chicago 7 goes out of its way to rebrand its defendants, making them more presentable for polite, liberal opinion. Flower power radicals, Black Panther militants, anti-war agitators, psychedelic explorers, and Viet Cong sympathizers are all reimagined as nice, clean Boy Scouts – or at least as good, civic duty-minded citizens. This might also explain why Lee Weiner is given the appearance of Wally Cleaver; his freshly shaven face is not so anodyne after all.
Furthermore, the film’s conclusion, with politics finally erupting into the court through Hayden’s words, significantly alters the nature of the trial. This final scene is based on an incident that actually occurred in the first few weeks of the trial, before Seale had even been removed from the court. Dellinger, not Hayden, read the names of the war dead, including both American and Vietnamese casualties, and the other defendants unfurled both the U.S. and Viet Cong flags across their table. Thus, what the film presents as a grand finale was actually there from the very beginning. Indeed, the defense’s entire strategy hinged on bringing politics into the courtroom – from Rennie Davis’ attempt to enter a U.S. bomb into evidence to the calling of countercultural icons as witnesses, figures like drug guru Timothy Leary, folk singers Judy Collins and Phil Ochs, novelist Norman Mailer, and Black activist Jesse Jackson. The film ignores all of this – and in so doing, it also ignores the prosecuting attorneys’ treatment of beat poet Allen Ginsberg; the supposedly sympathetic Richard Schultz gay-baited him on the stand, and Thomas Foran called him a “goddamned fag” as he was leaving the courtroom. Politics also came in the form of defiance, and Seale was not the only defendant who openly challenged the judge; Rubin mocked him with Nazi salutes, and Hoffman cursed him in Yiddish. In Sorkin’s film, this entire dimension of the trial is erased, and the whole affair seems to have been rechristened as a polite, liberal cause célèbre. If the defendants had managed to paint the trial with groovy tie-dye colors, on Netflix, it is awash in Democratic blue.
This also explains why Seale is sidelined. Seale’s defiance is simply too radical and his punishment too grisly to be neatly folded into Sorkin’s brand of liberalism. While this kind of revisionism with respect to the sixties is neither new nor unexpected, Sorkin’s approach is notable for its audacity. His script takes one of the Conspiracy Trial’s most powerful spectacles—the chaining and gagging of a Black man in a U.S. federal courtroom – and it uses that image to bury that era’s zeitgeist. If Judge Hoffman had attempted to gag Seale’s voice, The Trial of the Chicago 7 endeavors to gag his message. Seale’s confrontation with the judge is marginalized so that liberalism can emerge triumphant.
Soon after the Conspiracy Trial was over, Tom Hayden published a book in which he offered his thoughts and reflections about the whole affair. In this work, Hayden speculated about the true reasons behind the defendants’ arrest and prosecution, and he argued that what was actually on trial was the sixties itself: “Our crime was that we were beginning to live a new and contagious lifestyle without official authorization. We were tried for being out of control.” Perhaps these words also offer us the best way to make sense of Sorkin’s film. Like the trial itself, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an attempt to reassert control, a cinematic endeavor to rein in the left’s more radical tendencies – even if that means diminishing the defiance of Bobby Seale.
BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE: Excerpts from the trial transcript have been published in numerous forms, but the most exhaustive of these remains Judy Clavir and John Spitzer’s The Conspiracy Trial (Bobbs-Merrill, 1970). Soon after the trial concluded, three books were written by journalists who were present in the courtroom. The best is John Schultz’s Motion Will Be Denied: A New Report on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (William Morrow, 1972) (republished as The Chicago Conspiracy Trial), followed by Jason Epstein’s The Great Conspiracy Trial: An Essay on Law, Liberty and the Constitution (Random House, 1970). Less remarkable is New York Times columnist J. Anthony Lukas’ The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities: Notes on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (Harper and Row, 1970). Additional sources for information on the trial are the writings of the participants themselves, including the relevant sections of David Dellinger’s From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter (Pantheon, 1993), Tom Hayden’s Trial (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), Reunion: A Memoir (Random House, 1988), and Rebel: A Personal History of the 1960s (Red Hen, 2003), Abbie Hoffman’s Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture (Pantheon, 1980) (republished as The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman), William Kunstler’s My Life as a Radical Lawyer (co-written with Sheila Isenberg) (Birch Lane, 1994), and Jerry Rubin’s We Are Everywhere (Harpers and Row, 1971), as well as unindicted co-conspirator Stew Albert’s Who the Hell is Stew Albert?: A Memoir (Red Hen, 2004). One can also consult the two memoirs written by Bobby Seale himself: Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (Hutchinson, 1970) and A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale (Times, 1978). More recent analyses of the trial include Pnina Lahav’s “Theater in the Courtroom: The Chicago Conspiracy Trial” in the Fall 2004 issue of Law and Literature, Ian Lekus’ “Losing Our Kids: Queer Perspectives on the Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial,” in John McMillan and Paul Buhle (eds.), The New Left Revisited (Temple University, 2003), and Nick Sharman’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the Press (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Regarding the police murder of Fred Hampton, Jeffrey Haas’ The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Lawrence Hill, 2010) is essential reading. To date, there have been six film reenactments of the trial, including The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). Three of these films—Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (1987), Chicago 10 (2007), and The Chicago 8 (2011)—are easily available on DVD or various streaming sites. The absurdist The Great Chicago Conspiracy Circus (also known as Chicago 70) (1970) is more difficult to find, but it has been released on DVD. The BBC-produced On Trial: The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1970) is rare, but the UCLA Library’s Film and Television Archive holds a copy that is available for viewing. Other films that feature scenes from the trial include the Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal This Movie! (2000) and the documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (2009).
Greg Burris is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut and the author of The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination (Temple University, 2019). His previous essay on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, “Prometheus in Chicago: Film Portrayals of the Chaining and Gagging of Bobby Seale and the ‘Real-ization’ of Resistance,” appeared in a 2015 issue of Cinema Journal.