Reviewed: Chicago 10 (Written and Directed by Brett Morgen; 103 minutes)
Popular culture is the site of complex struggles between the forces of repression and those of liberation, British critical theorist Stuart Hall argued two decades ago. Movies and music, television and books all constitute the raw material of political imagination. Such cultural products not only engage the present but craft a narrative of the past. And what better way to blend past and present, culture and politics, than an animated documentary of the (in)famous Chicago conspiracy trial, one of the most well-known events of the 1960s?
The four days of protest confronting the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago were met with a savagery by police that has become legendary. When eight well-known activists were charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot stemming from their involvement with the protests-one of Attorney General John Mitchell’s first acts upon assuming the new post in 1969 following Richard Nixon’s election-"Chicago" was enshrined as a symbol of police violence and New Left militancy.
Months before the indictments, an official government report attributed the siege at the convention to a "police riot." The radical Left argued that the government was attempting to silence the movement by targeting the "Chicago 8": Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, and Tom Hayden of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the Mobe); John Froines, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner of the Yippies; and Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. The Mobe and the Yippies were both central entities helping pull together the demonstrations-and the Panthers were a persistent target of state violence. Supporters rallied to their side, while Nixon used the case as part of his "law and order" campaign against dissent. Trying to either forestall fascism or hasten the revolution, militants planned "The Day After" demonstrations for when the verdict was delivered. In February 1970, a jury returned not guilty verdicts for conspiracy but found five of them guilty for violating anti-riot laws. The judge also held all of them in contempt of court, and radicals took to the streets in protest nationwide.
Jerry Rubin, who, with Abbie Hoffman, pioneered the amorphous blend of symbol and substance that was the Yippie calling card, called the trial a cartoon. Rubin also noted that there were not eight defendants, nor seven-supporters dubbed the group the Chicago 7, after Seale’s case was severed from the others-but ten. Radical attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass each squared off with the judge in defense of their clients and received lengthy contempt sentences. (All guilty verdicts, including the contempt citations, were overturned in 1972.)
Rubin’s quips inform Brett Morgen’s attempt to tell the story of the Chicago conventions and conspiracy trial in his new film, Chicago 10. Morgen, director of The Kid Stays in the Picture, creatively blends a wealth of archival footage from the streets with animated recreations of the courtroom scenes. The latter portion is based on the trial transcripts and aided by the voices of Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Live Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright and Leonard Weinglass as himself.
Billed as a documentary, Chicago 10 is a clever and clearly postmodern film. Its mixture of archival footage and animated re-enactments playfully stretch conventions of documentary-though its stylized and non-descriptive narrative succeeds as a film but falls short as a documentary. It captures the insanity of Chicago police, the inanity of Judge Julius Hoffman (played by Roy Scheider as cantankerous though far too calm), and the antics of some of the defendants-especially Hoffman (voice by Azaria).
True to Morgen’s desire to create a "Yippie-centric view of history," as he told NPR interviewer Terry Gross, Chicago 10 sets out to present the spirit of the convention protests and trial more than its cold, hard facts. A quote from Abbie Hoffman, taken from a protest planning meeting and an archival clip which helps open the film, seems to describe Morgen’s mission: "We believe that politics is the way you live your life, not who you support. It’s not in terms of rallies or speeches or political programs. It’s in terms of images, and in terms of transforming people’s lives." Chicago 10 is an image of lives transformed by the creative morality of facing state repression for resisting the ultimate state violence of war.
Although the courtroom provides the basic narrative structure, Chicago 10 is as much about the street battles of the 1968 convention. Morgen provides little sense of timeline for the trial itself; he does not, for instance, acknowledge that the trial was made possible almost entirely by Richard Nixon’s election. Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark, refused to file charges following the protest, viewing the conspiracy charge as a red herring. Although it has been taken to be symbolic of the era overall, the conspiracy trial epitomizes the Nixon regime and its practices of power. Perhaps in an attempt to achieve contemporary resonance, Morgen moves away from this historical specificity, treating Chicago and the Yippies as reflective of what we know to be The Sixties. The only dates shown in the film refer to the convention protest itself, rather than the trial-as if one event flowed seamlessly from the other.
Morgen uses the courtroom as a counterbalance to the street-scene flashbacks of the convention protests themselves. Often, the courtroom provides comic relief to the high drama of the street battles. The film switches between the courtroom, which appears as a motion-capture animation (think Polar Express) using the voice of actors, and archival footage of demonstrations, press conferences, and rallies. Most of this footage is from the 1968 convention, though Morgen includes several poignant clips from planning meetings and from assorted speaking engagements Hoffman, Rubin, and others did in their own defense during and after the trial proceedings. This back and forth is offset sometimes by other animated displays: telephone updates Hoffman gave to WBAI reporter Bob Fass during the trial or even monologues Hoffman delivers as if he were a comedian at a night club.
Archival footage showcases Hoffman’s humorous media savvy, Rubin’s romantic appeal and Dellinger’s impressive yet humble organizing skills. We see some of Davis and Hayden in the archival footage, each stellar organizers in his own right. Yet none of the other defendants appear in the archives-neither, for that matter, do they appear much in the courtroom scenes. The spectacle of the courtroom is attributed mostly to the Hoffmans (both judge and defendant), with some supporting cast roles played by Rubin, Kunstler, and prosecutor Thomas Foran (a wonderfully agitated Nolte).
Morgen clearly appreciates not just the Yippies generally but Abbie Hoffman explicitly. In a film dedicated so strongly to symbolizing the period, Hoffman emerges as the symbol-hero of the film itself. This is justified to the extent that Hoffman’s eloquent eccentricity housed a fiery and brilliant radicalism; as he says in one archival clip shown in the film, "Our role in the court is to destroy its authority, and the next generation will come along and destroy its power."
There is a danger, however, in placing Hoffman, or the white counterculture more generally, at the center of the film’s historical narrative. While Hoffman plays a wonderful court jester, such depictions neglect the broader stakes of the defendants’ political commitments at the time. It further elides questions of racism as a structuring dimension of the era or of the trial proceedings, as evidenced through the treatment of Black Panther Chairman and conspiracy defendant Bobby Seale. There is no archival footage of Seale, except a brief clip at the film’s end-perhaps because Seale had not helped plan the demonstrations and was only in Chicago briefly during the protests. His inclusion as one of the defendants symbolized the government’s systematic efforts to crush the Panthers at every step.
Playing Seale, Jeffrey Wright, an impressive actor who has played famous twentieth century black figures from Martin Luther King to Jean-Michel Basquiat, does a decent job with the limited material. His screen time consists mostly of demanding to have his own attorney present or serve as his own attorney-demands Judge Hoffman denied. Frustrated by Seale’s repeated interruptions, Hoffman orders the bailiffs to silence him. We see him dragged off, only to return bound and gagged.
Despite consistently mocking the proceedings and expressing shock at this treatment, most of the other defendants did not intervene on Seale’s behalf. Only Dellinger, the oldest and only explicit pacifist of the bunch, attempted unsuccessfully to place his body between the guards and Seale. Chicago 10 neglects this act of solidarity, treating Hoffman as the most vocal opponent of Seale’s abuse. The film cuts from Seale being bound and gagged to archival footage of police stopping Dellinger from leading a march during the convention protests. In equivocating among their experiences, the film usefully dramatizes the ubiquity of state repression yet elides the ways in which certain groups and individuals were more heavily targeted than others.
Documentaries often, if subtly, comment as much on the era in which they are made as on the subject matter. Chicago 10 makes its present-focus explicit; in an NPR interview, Morgen described the project as "appropriating this time period [the 1960s] and rendering it as something new." The film’s name itself accomplishes this task: even if it comes from a comment by Rubin, the "Chicago 10" was not the parlance of the times. This orientation to the present extends to the soundtrack, which features the Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath, Rage Against the Machine and Eminem’s anti-Bush tract, "Mosh," rather than the traditional Bob Dylan or Jefferson Airplane. MC5, the only band to play during the convention protests, is the rare exception to focusing on contemporary artists. While the refusal to include the predictable classics is appreciated-it worked nicely, for instance, in Sam Green’s documentary The Weather Underground-the overly stylized narrative often feels pandering and anachronistic here. It lends the movie an unfortunate, albeit occasional, MTV aesthetic.
Chicago 10 is a cleverly conceived, if at times disappointingly realized, attempt at historical narration that strives to deliver a contemporary resonance. The most affecting piece of the film comes from the longest uninterrupted archival footage, which shows Chicago police wading into streets jammed with demonstrators with clubs and fists raging wildly. The tear gas residue, the carnal brutality at the hands of the state, and the transparently false statements by elites justifying their savagery will be familiar to anyone who saw footage from the 2008 Republican National Convention protests. And in a frightening example of history’s repeating cycle, eight protest organizers arrested during the recent protests now face up to seven and a half years for conspiracy charges amplified by Minnesota’s version of the Patriot Act. Yesterday’s allegation of communist subversion is today’s terrorism enhancement charge.
Yet with a different political climate and a different convention protest, the Minnesota 8 trial, should it come to that, will hardly resemble their Chicago forbearers. In providing a representation both romantic and convincing, Chicago 10 shows that "state of mind trials," as Hoffman described the conspiracy, are corrupt forms of theater. Perhaps the best advice from that trial for thinking about the current one comes not from Hoffman but Dellinger. In his pre-sentencing statement, which he quotes in his memoir, From Yale to Jail, Dellinger said "I think I shall sleep better and happier and with a greater sense of fulfillment in whatever jails I am in for however many years than if I had compromised, if I had pretended the problems were any less real than they are, or if I had sat here passively in the courthouse while justice was being throttled and the truth was being denied. I salute my brothers and sisters in Vietnam, in the ghetto, in the women’s liberation movement, all the people all over the world who are struggling to make true and real for all people the ideals on which this country was supposed to be founded, but never, never lived up to." ***
Dan Berger is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) and co-editor of Letters From Young Activists (Nation Books, 2005). He is a Ph.D. candidate in communication at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information, see www.danberger.org.
Editor’s Note: Dave Dellinger was a member of Toward Freedom’s board of directors. A website on Dave’s life and times is here: https://towardfreedom.org/dellinger/