Gag Orders: The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah

By Andrew Tracy

Bobby Seale makes a cameo of sorts midway through Judas and the Black Messiah, as Martin Sheen’s porcine J. Edgar Hoover—checking in personally on the progress of the FBI’s campaign against Chicago Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya)—is shown an artist’s sketch of the BPP’s national chairman gagged and shackled in the courtroom during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. This revolting spectacle understandably serves as the mid-film dramatic highpoint of The Trial of the Chicago 7, when the repeated, suitably indignant demands by Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to serve as his own defense counsel in the absence of his hospitalized lawyer—and presiding judge Julius Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) incredible refusal to grant this right, instead directing that Seale’s defense should be undertaken by the representatives for the other defendants—ultimately lead to him being bodily removed from the courtroom by marshals and returned in chains. That image of a defiant Black man, forcibly silenced and immobilized in a hall of American justice, became one of William Burroughs’ “frozen moment[s] at the end of the newspaper fork,” when everyone—including those who would applaud it—can see what they’re being fed. “The methods used against black people can be used against anyone,” Seale later wrote. “The double standard of justice being used now on all of the other seven defendants was brought out for the world to see…Judge Hoffman, the prosecutors [Richard] Schultz and [Thomas] Foran, [Attorney General John] Mitchell, Nixon, the legislators, the whole hypocritical government were embarrassingly exposed not only to the American people but to the world.”

The trial—a naked attempt by the Nixon government to criminalize dissent and hamstring the antiwar movement by attributing the police brutality meted out to demonstrators at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention to several prominent demonstration organizers, who were charged with an interstate conspiracy to incite a riot—is indeed a supremely embarrassing exposure, if those whom it embarrassed were capable of actually feeling shame. That it can be marked as some sort of victory, given that all seven defendants (down from eight once Seale’s brutal treatment resulted in a mistrial) were acquitted of the primary charge of conspiracy and that the partial convictions handed down to five of them were ultimately overturned due to Judge Hoffman’s mismanagement (if such a mild word can be used) of the proceedings, does nothing to lessen the disgust, and even despair, that arise from a reading of the transcript. If the trial was indeed a “circus,” as it has frequently been referred to, it was of the Roman variety. While the tyrannical senility and gobsmacking self-satisfaction of Judge Hoffman are good for more than a few disbelieving guffaws, there is nothing funny about their consequences. Surely, if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s the extraordinary difficulty of reconciling the spectacular absurdity of those who hold power with the deadly seriousness of how they wield it. There is nothing to feel “good” about here, only the kind of anger that can mobilize or, more often, paralyze.

Unsurprisingly, that kind of anger has no place in middlebrow maestro Aaron Sorkin’s Chicago 7, which not only retools the trial for maximum uplift but also, and not coincidentally, manages to warp the politics of the participants to fit the mould of its maker’s bankrupt liberalism. Given the fact that Sorkin, whose screenplay was published in advance of the film, could cheerfully author a foreword to a new edition of the abridged trial transcript that was published as a tie-in—a document that directly contravenes so much of his screenplay—there’s something almost daring about the distortions he visits upon the event. This isn’t a matter of such conventional dramatic inventions as having Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who was serving as a back-channel liaison between Seale and the other defendants, actually be present at the trial throughout the film’s first half; indeed, one could argue that Hampton’s physical presence in the film provides context and heightens the impact when his assassination by the Chicago police casts a pall over the proceedings at the film’s midpoint. Rather, it’s a matter of Sorkin’s wholesale remaking of the challenge that the defendants and their lawyers were posing to American law and American government—not in the name of dramatic necessity, but in that of the kind of impotent reformism that puts faith in systems over people.

The first glaring clue as to Sorkin’s project here arrives roughly 30 minutes in, when he has lead counsel William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) admonish Yippie yuckster Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) that “There are civil trials and there are criminal trials, there’s no such thing as a political trial.” Even granting the genuine internal divisions between the defendants (which Sorkin simplifies and heightens into a clash between Cohen’s Hoffman and Eddie Redmayne’s straightlaced Tom Hayden), in reality they and their representatives were setting out to prove that their trial was indeed political. The defense was not only setting out to prove the accused’s innocence of the trumped-up charges—and that, as Kunstler put it in his opening address, “the real conspiracy in this case is the conspiracy to curtail and prevent the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam”—but also the legitimacy and necessity of dissent against a state practicing mass murder abroad and surveillance of and sanctioned violence against its own citizens at home. As Jon Wiener summarizes, the Seven “wanted to argue that the trial was an attempt by the government to divert attention from the war, and they wanted to assert an American ‘right of resistance.’”That resistance was part and parcel of their tactics in the trial. More than just the Yippie contingent’s recurrent clowning of Hoffman’s cadaverous namesake on the bench, disruption was the cornerstone of the defense, from the parade of activists and counterculture figures called as defense witnesses “who together would personify the history of the sixties” (Wiener) to the frequent (and always denied) requests that the trial proceedings be halted in light of the larger, more important events taking place outside the courtroom—whether to honour the memory of the slain Hampton, to allow the defendants to participate in antiwar protests on Vietnam Moratorium Day, or, on the denial of that request, to display American and North Vietnamese flags at the defense table and read the names of the American and Vietnamese war dead.

That latter episode, relocated to the end of the trial and framed as Hayden’s statement after sentencing, does make it in to The Trial of the Chicago 7, with the ever-so-slight change that the list is now strictly of the American dead, and Hayden’s reading of it inspires even the prosecutor Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to rise in order to “honour the fallen.” More really need not be said about the political and ideological derangement that Sorkin hath wrought here, but what is perhaps equally remarkable is how his carefully cultivated conception of what constitutes drama leads him to overlook the drama that leaps out of the trial transcript itself. Judge Hoffman’s repellent eagerness to assert his anti-racist bona fides after the shameful treatment of Seale (“I would want this very nice witness to know [that] he has made me laugh often and heartily,” hizzoner says of Black comedian and activist Dick Gregory, one of the defense witnesses); prosecutor Foran concluding his cross-examination of Allen Ginsberg with the words, “Goddamned fag”; Seale calling Schultz “a rotten racist pig, [a] fascist liar” when the prosecutor accuses him of ordering Black Panthers in attendance to attack the courtroom; Kunstler breaking down in tears as marshals attack defendant Dave Dellinger’s daughters in the audience, saying to the judge, “My life has come to nothing, I am not anything anymore…Put me in jail now, for God’s sakes, and get me out of this place.” There’s any number of frozen moments in this extraordinary document, but the Sorkinistas of this world—who continue to view institutions as repositories of values rather than instruments of power—have no stomach for such a naked lunch.

“I don’t have time for cultural revolution, it distracts from real revolution,” Sorkin has Hayden say to Hoffman early in Chicago 7, but naturally his film has no conception of what “revolution” actually means, and would want no part of it if it did. Points then to Judas and the Black Messiah on this score for not only capturing Fred Hampton’s magnetism and charisma as a leader (which can be seen for real in the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, currently available for free on YouTube), but also some of what his revolution consisted of in a practical sense. While director Shaka King is not above the occasional bit of movie-movie heightening—such as a summit between Hampton’s Panthers and the leadership of the Blackstone Rangers gang, staged in an enormous deserted church with machine gun-toting street soldiers ringing the upper galleries—the revolution that his film shows is one premised not (only) on armed confrontation, but on work: speaking, organizing, growing community support (through the Panthers’ free breakfast program for kids and free medical clinic), brokering alliances (with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Southern white Young Patriots, based on their shared experience of economic marginalization and police harassment and brutality), and establishing a parallel moral authority based on rights, justice, and solidarity to oppose an official authority founded on violence and control.

Of course, let’s not go crazy here: as Judas is indeed a Movie, much of the above is handled in quick-clip montage fashion as a résumé-builder for our dauntless protagonist, rather than centred as the film’s subject. What is impressive, however, is how King and his co-writer Will Berson are able to accord equal dramatic interest to both halves of their two-hander title—with petty crook and FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who rises to the position of head of security in the Chicago Panthers, the apostate to the doomed Hampton—without sexing up the dynamic between the two men in order to make O’Neal’s ultimate betrayal all the more “impactful,” in the bogus, Sorkinian sense of the term. It would have been easy to make the men close confidants, with plentiful scenes of intimate, shot–reverse shot close-ups, portentous dialogue, and the kind of mugging that leads reviewers to write breathlessly of the countless emotions flowing across actors’ faces. Instead, King and Berson maintain both a dramatic and a visual distance between the two, as Hampton’s low-level skepticism about O’Neal (heightened by the latter’s agent-provocateur attempts to urge the Panthers toward premeditated terroristic actions) keeps the latter outside Hampton’s inner circle.

In his book The Assassination of Fred Hampton, Jeffrey Haas—one of the lawyers who spearheaded the 12-year-long civil suit against the police, the Chicago D.A.’s office, and the FBI on behalf of the families of Hampton and Mark Clark, the other Panther killed in the murder raid on Hampton’s apartment—writes of how O’Neal “displayed no sense of guilt or responsibility or even satisfaction” in his testimony after Hampton’s death, of how “he did not come across as either the boasting beast or the remorseful penitent.” These qualities of impenetrability and unnerving coolness, it must be said, are missing from Stanfield’s considerably sweatier performance, though that sweatiness is understandable given that the film uses O’Neal’s masquerade as a means of regularly generating suspense. What Stanfield does capture is the almost sleepwalking feeling of O’Neal’s long-term, deep-cover betrayal, as if he were witnessing his own actions rather than controlling them. In a gathering at Hampton’s apartment shortly before the raid, a frozen-faced O’Neal silently watches Hampton across the room, as if incredulously contemplating how this man—thanks in part to the floorplan O’Neal provided his FBI contact, not to mention the sedative he has been obliquely instructed to drop in the leader’s drink—will soon simply cease to be.

The same, unfortunately, is likely to happen to Hampton in the minds of viewers shortly after the de rigueur what-happened-then titles at film’s end. This is less a knock on the filmmakers—who, distinctly unlike the Sorkin abortion, have achieved a thoroughly decent mainstream historical drama—than on the mainstream historical-drama form itself, which is circumscribed by the bounds of mainstream liberal political discourse. Kaluuya’s recreation of Hampton’s August 1969 speech at the “People’s Church”—punctuated by the memorable call-and-response “I am! A revolutionary!”—is a rousing bit of oratory, and also one that is lacking a few crucial words from the actual speech: “international revolutionary proletarian struggle,” the formula on which the Panthers’ Marxist, anti-capitalist analysis of and actions against American systemic racism were founded. While this sin of omission is nowhere near the level of The Trial of the Chicago 7’s fabricated salute to the fallen, it stems from the same source. By treating the word “revolution” merely as the lingua franca of the times they depict in order to align with the impoverished sense of political possibility in our own, even further fallen times, both films forego frozen moments in favour of benign paralysis.