By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2008)
A modern revolutionary group heads for the television station.
In September of 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow radical activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the massive anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting violent mayhem that transpired in the Chicago environs during the 1968 Democratic Convention. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in American history.
Scarcely a day after I went to see Brett Morgen’s new documentary, Chicago 10, which recounts the events leading up to the “police riots” in the streets, the tumultuous convention itself and the subsequent trial of the “Chicago 7”, I saw this story on the local TV news here in Seattle and thought to myself, “Yippee!”…
TACOMA, Wash. – About 150 people — those opposed to the Iraq War and those supporting it — gathered noisily outside a Tacoma Mall office building on Saturday. A group known as World Can’t Wait had organized an anti-war protest to mark the coming fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. But long before their protest was scheduled to begin, counter-protesters arrived.
The counter-protesters surrounded an office building that houses military recruiting offices, which anti-war protesters had said they planned to “shut down.” They shouted “God bless our troops” and waved American flags. As the two groups faced off, dozens of police officers, including some in full SWAT gear, served as a buffer zone. They formed a human line to divide the groups. But there were no arrests or injuries. The two groups shouted insults at each other and waved posters and flags. The demonstrators shouted insults at each other and each side attempted to out-yell the other side.
“They don’t appreciate our soldiers and what they do for our freedom,” said Cheryl Ames. “I am on this side because I do not agree with the way the war started,” said Tommie CeBrun. Protesters held up photos of Iraq detainees tortured at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. They also laid out 281 pairs of shoes on the sidewalk in front of the building, including 81 pairs of combat boots that carried tags bearing the name of a U.S. military member killed in Iraq who listed Washington as his or her home state. The protesters said the 200 pairs of shoes represented the 200-to-1 ratio of the Iraqi-to-American death rate.
But the act was met with a volley of insults. Warnings for military families to avoid the mall had been circulating for days, since some recent protests, including one at the Port of Olympia, have seen increased violence. Meghan Tellez and her children planned to avoid the mall. Her husband is in the Navy Reserve. “I love that mall, but I don’t want my children around that,” she said.
Up against the mall, motherfucker.
Yes, it’s been nearly 40 years to the day since the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, but it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same; which is all the more reason that you need to rush out and see Chicago 10 immediately.
First, let’s solve the math story problem that addresses the disparity between the film’s title and the conventional “Chicago 7” reference. There were originally 8 defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out altogether.
His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served an unbelievable 4 year sentence for contempt (“unbelievable” in the pre-Gitmo era). The group’s outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt (although they never did time). Hence, the answer is “10”.
Using a mélange of animation, archival footage and voiceover re-creation by well-known actors, Morgen expands even further on the eye-catching multimedia technique that he and co-director Nanette Burstein used in their 2002 doc The Kid Stays in the Picture.
The bulk of the animated sequences are re-enactments from the trial , with dialog from courtroom transcripts (no rewrites were required, because you couldn’t make this shit up). This visual technique perfectly encapsulates the circus atmosphere of the trial, which was largely fueled by Hoffman and Rubin’s amusing yet effective use of “guerilla theater” to disrupt the proceedings and expose what they felt to be the inherent absurdity of the charges. The courtroom players are voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte (as prosecutor Thomas Foran), Jeffrey Wright (as Bobby Seale) and the late Roy Scheider in full “fuddy-duddy” mode as Judge Hoffman.
Do not, however, mistake this film as a gimmicky and superficial “cartoon” that only focuses on the hi-jinx. There is plenty of evidence on hand, in the form of archival footage (fluidly incorporated by editor Stuart Levy) to remind us that these were very serious times. In one memorable clip, the normally unflappable Walter Cronkite, ensconced in the press booth above the convention arena, shakes his head and declares the situation in Chicago to be tantamount to “…what could only be called a police state”.
Interestingly, the iconic, oft-used footage of reporter Dan Rather being manhandled by security officers on the convention floor is conspicuously MIA; Morgen seems determined to avoid the conventional documentary approach in order to give us a fresh perspective on the story. The footage of the Chicago police wildly bludgeoning any and all who crossed their path (demonstrator and innocent bystander alike) still has the power to shock and physically sicken the viewer. There is a protracted montage of this violence that seems to run on for at least 10 minutes; sensitive viewers may find this sequence particularly upsetting.
For once, a film about the “turbulent 60s” does not feature “Fortunate Son” by CCR, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods or (most notably) “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (you can always re-watch Forrest Gump if you wish to wallow in trite 60s clichés). Rather, appropriately incendiary music by Rage Against the Machine, The Beastie Boys and Eminem infuses seamlessly with well-chosen period songs from Black Sabbath (“War Pigs”), Steppenwolf (“Monster”) and the MC5 (“Kick Out the Jams”).
I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.
If I have any quibble with Chicago 10, it is a minor one. Although some of us are old enough (ahem) to remember the high-profile media coverage of the trial and grok the circumstances surrounding it, a little hindsight analysis or discussion of historical context would have been helpful for younger viewers. But perhaps Morgen wanted to steer clear of the usual clichés, like parading a series of talking heads with gray ponytails, sentimentalizing and waxing poetically about the halcyon days of yore. Besides, if you “remember” the 60s, you probably weren’t there anyway, right?