“The Trial of the Chicago 7” teaches an essential lesson about historical change

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Courtesy of Netflix/The Stanford Daily

Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) walks the steps of the courthouse while protesters gather outside.

Depicting a flash point in American history, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” combines the historical weight and themes of the 1968 Chicago riots during the nomination of then-Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey with the standard wittiness, dramatization, and comedy of Sorkin’s other productions like “The West Wing.” 

The film follows the eight defendants through what one of them, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), aptly identifies as a “political trial,” pitting the left-wing and counterculture movements of the 1960s against the newly installed Nixon Justice Department. 

The 1968 Chicago riots stemmed from confrontations between anti-Vietnam War protesters and the Chicago Police Department, who denied the protesters access to the vicinity of the Democratic convention and ultimately sparked violent clashes in the streets of the city. 

In the film, we watch as Hoffman and the other leaders of the various protests are arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot. The other original eight defendants include Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  

Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, eventually has his case declared a mistrial and separated from the remaining seven because of how the judge had him shackled and gagged in the courtroom after charging him with several accounts of contempt.  

The case is given to assistant to the US Attorney Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie), Richard Shultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)by Richard Nixon’s recently appointed Attorney General, John Mitchell (John Doman). Shultz initially objected to the charges on the legal precedent and background of the laws the eight are charged with, but ultimately takes the case as an opportunity to advance his career. 

Disunity among the eight, shenanigans by Hoffman and Rubin, and the defending lawyers’ protests of Judge Julius Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) strict courtroom procedures lead to the defense and its lawyers being charged with an additional 175 counts of contempt.  

Yet as the trial progresses, the seven put aside their differing philosophies to unite behind their defense and cause, pushing to end the Vietnam War. 

The film serves as a reminder that the gears that move our democracy forward are not set into motion by politicians or bureaucrats, but instead by the unified voice of the people. 

This message resonates heavily with the activism and protests that swept the nation this past summer, with citizens from all walks of life uniting to voictheir resistance to the state of policing and police brutality in the United States.

The eight activists depicted in the film relentlessly questioned the authority of those in power, regardless of political affiliation (the protests occurred under the Johnson administration and the trial began under the Nixon administration). We watch as their unity grows stronger as a result of the universal pain created by the Vietnam War, as they all share the common belief that no authority should go unchecked 

When the eight are presented with Hubert Humphrey, a candidate who represents their side of the political aisle but not their beliefsthe eight decide to make their respective voices heard in order to have their movements brought to the forefront of the national political scene.  

During the film’s trial, Abbie Hoffman is asked by a reporter what it would take to call off his movement. Hoffman simply replies, “My life.” This level of dedication to their pursuit of creating a more-perfect union causes their message to be heard loud and clear by the American public and political elite alike, allowing the eight to continue building the momentum needed to see the changes they desired be made. 

While Sorkin’s film deviates from the original events of the trial and uses drama to illuminate the roller-coaster of emotions and generational impacts of the trial, the film demonstrates the level of devotion and passion needed by the next generation of activists to keep the gears of change in motion, providing inspiration as they tackle the issues facing the twenty-first century.