US President Donald Trump who is seeking a re-election has been harping on his favourite campaign theme that the US cities are the violent hellscapes only he can save and that he would not allow federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones, implying that his government would not be kind to those who protest. In 1969, another president from Trump’s party had demonstrated how the justice system could be misused and the constitution can be rendered toothless to deny a fair hearing to those who do not agree with the government.
It is not too long ago that Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a convenience store employee called the police and complained that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 note. Exactly seventeen minutes after the police arrived at the scene, Floyd was unconscious and chocked beneath three police officers, eventually breathing his last. The protests that followed across various US cities turned violent, following which Trump threated the governors and mayors with a cut on state funding though he did not have control over the funds that that states and cities are supposed to get.
The makers of The Trial of the Chicago 7 couldn’t have timed the release of their film any better. US is going to the polling booth as we speak. Fierce debates on the freedom of speech and dissent are on between the liberals and the right wingers. Liberals, not only those live in the US, but worldwide, are fighting for their right to free speech and protest because autocratic right-wing governments have taken over the democratic institutions and corrupted them by installing their henchmen at key positions.
The courtroom drama released on Netflix gives a worm’s eye view of the trial of eight anti-war activists for allegedly inciting riots and violence in front of the 35th Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The long trial of these youngsters who had organised a massive protest against the Vietnam war carries enough drama and twists that expose the famed American justice system. Richard Nixon, who took over the reins after the elections that followed the riots, punished the activists by overseeing a long and ugly trial that denied them basic justice and a just hearing.
The activists were charged with criminal conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot at the Democratic Convention. While the accused firmly denied by furnishing proof of how they planned to hold a peaceful protest by applying for legal permissions months before, prosecutors argued that they encouraged people to come to Chicago to riot defying the orders of the police and the military.
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s treatment of the subject gives even the uninitiated in US politics the crux of the issue in a universalised manner. The protests and the manner in which it was crushed and the leaders had to undergo a witch-hunt would resonate with the audience in India. We have been witnessing daily incidents of activists and politicians being hounded using law enforcement agencies. Those who could not be directly linked to any violent protests or conspiracy against the state are being arrested and kept behind bars without bail or trial for merely possessing revolutionary literature or raising slogans.
The events and the modus operandi of the administration that displays fascist tendencies and authoritarianism are played out in a convincing way in the film, thanks to the perfect cast and their performances. Sorkin who had constructed a well dramatised biopic such as The Social Network uses grainy black and white news footage and the standup comedy gigs of Sacha Baron Cohen who plays the anarchist counterculture leader Abbie Hoffman are used as narrative devices.
Take the case of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was in Chicago just to deliver a speech, and did not participate in the protests or the riots that followed. Though he kept on requesting that he be heard in the court, the corrupt judge (Frank Langella) who was conducting the trial with preconceived notions and a brief to prosecute the eight regardless of the merit of their defense, denies him the chance. What’s more, he orders Seale be forcefully taken away to a room and beaten up for contempt. He is brought back after being roughed up and gagged before declaring him as a mistrial. You can see George Floyd and flashes of the ‘black lives matter’ movement in the reactions of those present in the courtroom.
The point that we have not come too far from the time of the Chicago trial is well taken. In the process of making it relevant to current times, the director seems to have made it too contemporary by not investing on recreating the 60s convincingly neither in production design nor in dialogues. At times, the film makes us feel that these are recent events.
The iconic slogan “The whole world is watching!” echoes throughout the narrative for a reason. As the trial nears its conclusion, the prosecutor asks Abbie Hoffman: “Do you have contempt for your government?”. He responds: “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that are right now populated by some terrible people.” When the prosecutor repeats the question to extract a response that he was looking for, Hoffman says “It’s nothing compared to the contempt my government has for me.” It is such clever commentary that reflect our current political realities that makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 a must-watch despite its shortcomings.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here)