The Chicago 7 vs. Aaron Sorkin: Not a Netflix movie

by Gary Gordon

In 1969 the Federal government put eight men on trial and those eight men put the Federal government on trial. The eight men, officially “David Dellinger et al.,” were anti-war protestors charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite riots at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in 1968.

To the prosecutors, it was a criminal trial. To the defendants and their lawyers it was a political trial: they were there to put the war on trial as they had been in Chicago to challenge the Democratic Party’s support for the war.

Recently, Netflix produced an Aaron Sorkin movie “The Chicago Seven.” I read about the trial as it happened and have studied it since. I was hoping, given the transcripts, news footage, books and contemporaries (like Rennie Davis and Bobby Seale) still available to interview that Sorkin would get it right.  

He didn’t.

Falsehoods abound. And while no “based on a true story” movie is ever entirely true, the choices Sorkin made simply aren’t justifiable.

Near the beginning of the trial, defendant Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, is ordered bound and gagged by Judge Hoffman for days as he kept protesting that he was not represented by counsel. While Sorkin focuses on this — it’s good drama — he short circuits it to appear as if the punishment lasted only one day.

Within his focus on Seale, Sorkin places the young Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton at the trial coaching Bobby and confronting some defendants before he was murdered by the Chicago police. The implication is Hampton’s coaching of Seale led to his murder. This is false on two counts: Hampton wasn’t at the trial, and the Feds and local police were after him because he was effectively bringing together white, brown, and black poor and working-class people into an organization. 

Sorkin invents a blonde female undercover agent whom we are led to believe seduced defendant Jerry Rubin then “told the truth” about what he and co-defendant Abbie Hoffman “were really up to.” This character is fictional. And unnecessary: Sorkin could’ve used the testimony of the undercover police from the transcripts but chose not to.

Part of putting the war on trial included demonstrating to the jury and world the values of the counter-culture, so several cultural heroes including Allen Ginsberg, Arlo Guthrie, “Country” Joe McDonald, Paul Krassner, Pete Seeger, and Judy Collins testified for the defense. Collins started to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Ginsberg sought to demonstrate his crowd-calming “ohmmm” chant: both were ruled out of order by Judge Hoffman. Guthrie’s testimony turns into a version of “Alice’s Restaurant”—Sorkin left out all of these movie moments in exchange for false inventions.

Thousands of ordinary people, not members of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War (The Mobe) or the Yippies (The Youth International Party) came to Chicago to protest in 1968, and many were beaten in what a subsequent Presidential Commission concluded was a “police riot.” Some of these people testified. None of this makes it into Sorkin’s movie

Sorkin gives Abbie Hoffman a brief moment on the stand but chooses to concentrate on strategic differences within the anti-war movement using Hayden and Hoffman as his dramatic pawns for this confrontation when the real confrontation was between those on trial and the Federal government — those against the war and those for it.

Although Sorkin does include some of Abbie Hoffman’s and Rubin’s antics (coming to court wearing judge’s robes), he leaves out the substance of Hoffman’s and Davis’s multi-day testimonies as to why they organized for people to come to Chicago: Hoffman worked to promote a Festival of Life in contrast to the Democrats “Festival of Death,” and Davis worked to organize anti-war demonstrations. This is the meat of the confrontation, the meat of the story, but it’s ignored or served as a vague side dish.

Sorkin invents a scene where the lifelong pacifist Dellinger hits a U.S. Marshal. There is no truth to this, and one of Dellinger’s daughters, who was turned into a son by Sorkin, was among the many furious with the scene.

There are numerous other errors and offenses, all unnecessary as the confrontation in the courtroom between the establishment and the anti-war counter-culture was real and needed no dramatist to fictionalize it in order to heighten it.

Sorkin, according to defendant Tom Hayden’s son Troy, spoke to Tom about the trial for his research. He didn’t talk with Davis, Seale, Froines, or Weiner. He’s said in interviews he had no idea who the Chicago 7 were when Steven Spielberg suggested he do a movie about the trial. He was 8 in 1969.

Perhaps because he was not of the era and perhaps because he didn’t do his research, he conveys no appreciation for any of the primary defendants and the amount of time each of them put into civil rights, social justice and anti-war work—all of which is why the government put them on trial in the first place. (Only Froines and Weiner were randomly selected as a message to those who simply participate.)

Instead, Davis, who had traveled with Dellinger to Hanoi to work on POW releases and who was the chief organizer of some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in the country, comes off as if he’s just graduated from high school. Hayden, who was beaten in McComb, Mississippi, doing civil rights work, doesn’t come off as being a longtime activist and the brilliant author of the revolutionary Port Huron Statement and a founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The others are portrayed with less than their bios deserve. 

There are two movies that do a much better job with this subject: “The Chicago 10” (2007) and “The Chicago 8” (1987). The first includes animation for the courtroom scenes intercut with great news footage of the protests, riots, and speeches; the second is a strict courtroom presentation based entirely on the transcripts.

Why is this important? You might as well ask why history is important. This government puts political dissidents on trial, but it doesn’t always win: ultimately the Chicago 7 were innocent, the Gainesville 8 were innocent, and American Indian Movement leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means were innocent.

Gary Gordon attended the 1973 Contempt trial when the Chicago 7 and their attorneys returned to Chicago to be sentenced for contempt: the contempt charges were thrown out. He also attended the Means-Banks “Wounded Knee” trial in ’74 in St. Paul and was there when the judge chastised the FBI and prosecutors for lying.

Gordon will teach his Dissent on Trial and Trials of the Century classes through Santa Fe College on ZOOM in January and February. See page 21 for details.

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