Critics are enjoying, if not quite raving about, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Writer and director Aaron Sorkin, having learned about the 1968 Democratic National Convention from Steven Spielberg, forged a courtroom drama from the major events of the trial in which eight left-wing activists were charged with conspiring to start a riot. It’s acknowledged that the movie takes liberties with the historical record, but the resulting writing is pointed and energetic, and the performances of the ensemble cast are said to capture the real-life bravado of such figures as Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). However, critics have had comparatively little to say about Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Bobby Seale, co-founder and National Chairman of the Black Panther Party.
Seale was the eighth defendant in the Chicago conspiracy trial, but in November 1969 his case was declared a mistrial and severed from that of the remaining seven defendants. As a result, Seale is absent from its end. This is a shame, because out of all the characters, the themes of the movie—political repression via the justice system, the importance of protest, the challenges of solidarity—are most clearly told in the story of Bobby Seale and the Illinois Black Panther Party. Seale was shoehorned into the trial to impede his organizing with the Black Panthers, the pro-Black, anti-capitalist radical group that the FBI had deemed “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
The conspiracy charges against Seale were on their face ridiculous, in light of the fact that Seale had not met the seven other members of the defense before the trial. To make matters worse, Seale’s lawyer, Charles Garry, was undergoing gallbladder surgery in California and his motion to postpone the trial was denied by Judge Julius Hoffman. The judge, failing to conceal his disdain for the defendant, repeatedly insisted that William Kunstler be the lawyer for
Seale; Seale in turn insisted he was not. After his demand for his lawyer was repeatedly denied, Seale asked to act as his own lawyer and cross-examine witnesses. Seale attempted in good faith to develop a legal defense for himself: he received legal advice from Garry, asked Judge Hoffman to coach him in the procedure of cross-examination, and argued for his right to defend himself with a special Reconstruction law affirming a Black man’s right to equal protection under the law. When these demands were also denied, Seale responded to the arbitrariness of the judge by calling him a pig, a blatant racist, and a fascist.
Seale was, as the prosecution’s lawyer put it, “a very effective speaker,” and his performance in the courtroom was a synthesis of legal reasoning and political protest. A journalist at the trial stated “there were times when it seemed that there was only one relationship in the courtroom, the struggle between Bobby Seale and Judge Hoffman.”
So it is no surprise that Abdul-Mateen II’s scenes are some of the most engaging in the film, especially when they stay true to Seale’s actual courtroom performance. Yet Abdul-Mateen II often substitutes righteous anger in place of Seale’s coolness, cunning, and persistence. The Bobby Seale of the movie seethes and stares down the racist judge; he raises his voice to appeal to the courtroom audience, he pounds the table and is taken away by the marshals. While Abdul-Mateen II’s performance is laudable, the film does not convey that Seale’s actions in the trial were part of a deliberate, studied strategy. Nor are Seale’s political beliefs ever elaborated. At times, Seale makes appeals to anti-racism generally, such as when he alludes to lynching in speaking to Tom Hayden, but the political goals of the Panthers—community control of the police, anti-poverty programs, an end to military service for Black men—are never broached in the film.
While the film is generally sympathetic to the Panthers, it shows no real interest in their history. The film’s most dramatic factual error is its portrayal of Fred Hampton and of his murder. Hampton, the leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was assassinated on December 4, 1969 in a 4am raid on his house organized by the FBI, the Chicago Police Department, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. This was a month after Bobby Seale was already severed from the trial; in fact, footage exists of Fred Hampton speaking outside of the trial, telling a crowd about the “physical and mental torture” the judge was inflicting on Seale. The film appropriates Hampton’s murder for its own narrative by imagining it took place a month earlier.
In Sorkin’s ahistorical iteration, Seale learns about Hampton’s murder in jail and still must participate in the trial that day. In the courtroom, he continues to advocate for himself, but his patience is exhausted. After a final row with the judge, he stands, turns towards the courtroom audience, and shouts “it was premeditated murder… Fred Hampton was assassinated last night!” The movie then segues back into historical fact as Seale, as a result of his outburst, is ordered by the judge to be gagged, chained to his chair, and brought back into the courtroom. But by shifting the timeline, the movie imagines that Seale was gagged and bound as a consequence of his emotions, not as a response to his consistent struggle for his constitutional rights.
Seale continued to struggle throughout the three days of the trial that he remained gagged and bound, interjecting when he felt he was being misrepresented and shouting down the judge when his gag happened to slip. Outside of the trial, courtroom sketches of Seale in chains were disseminated as a powerful symbol of the political repression the Black Panthers were facing. After three days, Judge Hoffman came to terms with the fact that gagging Seale was both ineffective and a political windfall for the Panthers. On the next Monday, Seale’s restraints were removed, and a day later his case was declared a mistrial.
When the judge declares a mistrial in the film, the crowd cheers. Bobby Seale, whose central conflict in the film is his desire to be heard fairly by the judge, exits the movie with the gag still firmly in his mouth. It’s indicative of Sorkin’s treatment of the Panthers: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is sympathetic to them but refuses to give voice to their political demands. That the film silences these activists and their analysis that policing, prisons, and poverty are central obstacles to equality for Black people, speaks better to the current moment than any of the other political ideologies in the film.
Critics have unanimously agreed that the film holds up a mirror to our present, with its protest scenes that closely resemble the police riots of this summer. But the film contains no answers as to why, fifty years later, Black protestors must still wage the same political fight.
Elliot Frank is a writer and web developer living in Chicago. This is his first contribution to the Weekly.