October 28, 2020 Editor

The Trial of the Chicago Seven: A Review by Martha Sonnenberg

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The Intersection of Memory and History: A Review of “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Netflix

October 28, 2020

WN: While I lived through this history as a young university student, I was largely oblivious, since back then politics had (so I thought, and a Regent College Old Testament professor at University of British Columbia once told me in fact: “There is no politics in the Bible.”) no relevance to Christianity: I an (arrogant) firm (fundamentalist) believer.

I thank God I have changed my mind about a thing or two in the past fifty years (though aware my remaining “long way to go in many things!” will not be matched by life expectancy:-). Sigh . . . A memoir in the hereafter?)


In a recent panel discussion of Aaron Sorkin’s film, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” (Netflix), Rennie Davis, now 80, and one of the seven, refers to “the wizardry of the timing of this film.” And it is true: whatever one thinks of this film, and whether you were there, or just learning about the events of 1969, and whether you like the film or not, the relevance of this history to today’s political environment is undeniable.

The film portrays the 1969 Chicago trial of seven men who were charged with inciting a riot when the anti-war protest of the 1968 Democratic Convention ended in violent confrontation with the Chicago Police and National Guard. The men were Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Dave Dellinger, John Froines and Lee Weiner. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was the eighth man charged. It is called “the Chicago seven” because Seale’s case was eventually split off from the rest, in a turn of events after Seale demanded that he be allowed to represent himself, and after he was bound and gagged by order of the racist and biased judge, Julius Hoffman

At the outset, let me say that this is an entertaining, engaging and sometimes inspiring film, a progressive feel good film. It has the benefit of a great story, the crisp and clever dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, and a strong cast. Sasha Baron Cohen leads the list with his uncanny ability to inhabit the persona of his characters, in this case, Abbie Hoffman. Other strong performances were from Mark Rylance as the defendant’s lawyer, William Kunstler, and Frank Langella as the martinet Judge Julius Hoffman. Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, John Carroll Lynch as Dave Dellinger, Daniel Flaherty as John Froines , Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner, Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass, the other defense attorney, were all adequate but were not able to rescue their characters from the flattened portrayals offered by a writer who never knew and didn’t really understand the people he wrote about. Yahya Abdul-Mateen was a credible Bobby Seale, but since Seale’s role in the film is minimized, he wasn’t able to develop Bobby Seale’s character fully.

Ways of Seeing

Young activists today, or anyone who is unfamiliar with this history, will surely appreciate this film for its striking parallels with the tumult we are witnessing in 2020, with a global pandemic and its enormous death toll, a crushing economic crisis, a reactionary and inhumane administration, the uprisings and protests over racial injustice, as well as the brutality with which those protests have been met. There is a chilling moment in the film when someone asks the bound and gagged Bobby Seale, “Bobby, can you breathe?” George Floyd and Eric Garner immediately come to mind. Through this lens, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” can inspire hope and determination to continue the struggle for change.

However, those who have their own memories of these events will view “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” differently from those who for whom this history is a revelation. And in that sense, these two groups of perceivers will actually “see” two different films. The content of the film remains the same, but the relationship of the audience to the content changes. For those of us who remember, or who experienced these events, the story is much more complex than the film suggests. For this reason, the film can be a disappointing oversimplification and distortion of the real events which had an unforgettable impact on peoples’ lives.

Please click on: The Chicago Seven


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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.