The new film The Trial of the Chicago 7 may be focused on the antiwar protests of the 1960s, but it draws distinct parallels to the protests in the streets, complaints about police violence and divisive politics that the U.S. faces today.
The film — which was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and is out now on Netflix — follows eight different men who protested the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Police cracked down on the protests, leaving hundreds injured and arrested. Months after the convention, a new administration led by President Richard Nixon charged the eight men with crossing state lines with the intent to start a riot. Several of the defendants did not know each other.
The infamous, months-long trial became known as the trial of the Chicago 7, even though eight people were on trial initially. The eighth defendant was Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Seale was the only Black defendant, and the judge, Julius Hoffman, treated him with particular bias.
Hoffman, played in the film by Frank Langella, refused to delay Seale’s trial, despite his lawyer having just had gallbladder surgery so he couldn’t be present. Each time Seale tried to bring this up and ask for a fair trial, Hoffman would dismiss him, and even had him bound and gagged in the courtroom.
“I think it could also potentially be argued that Bobby Seale goaded the judge into silencing him in that violent way,” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Seale in the film, told NPR’s All Things Considered. “And that was a powerful move by Bobby Seale by outsmarting the judge, by outsmarting his oppressor, and he did it by speaking out in court, by being disruptive, by demanding justice, by demanding the rights that are afforded to him through the Constitution. And I think there’s a lesson to be learned about that, about one being educated about your own circumstances, being educated about the law, but then also the follow up is when you have the courage to stand up and speak through your conviction.”
Abdul-Mateen II told NPR’s Michel Martin about the connection between the film and the current fight for racial justice, and the weight of portraying such an important figure in U.S. history.
On playing Bobby Seale
It began to take on more meaning for me once I went and I looked up interviews of Bobby Seale, I really learned or started to get an idea for the dignity that this man had and about how he was robbed of his dignity during that trial. And I wanted to do two things with this role: I wanted to represent for Oakland [where Abdul-Mateen II grew up and where the Black Panthers were founded] and I wanted to advocate for Bobby Seale and for his experience, the experience that he had in this trial. And I knew that if I could step into those shoes and if I could go through that humiliation, that brutalization as Bobby Seale would call it, and if I could go through that and portray a victory, as opposed to a defeat, then I felt like I would be doing a good job.
On filming the scene in which Seale is bound and gagged
I think the best piece of information that I got from researching him was a quote when he was in prison during this case and he says when you’re a revolutionary, they can’t break your spirit. And he also knew that whatever they threw at him would be the worst thing that they could imagine. So, he talks about having the type of psychology where you understand your oppressor to the degree that whatever they throw at you, you have to understand that they’re only doing the things that they’re afraid to have done to them, so that when you persevere through that, it makes them afraid, and they stand back in amazement at how you’re able to withstand something that they could never be able to put themselves through.
So, I tried to really arm myself with the idea that as a Black man, as a representative of myself, my people, my manhood, my dignity, that I would protect those things at all costs. And I wouldn’t allow someone else to dehumanize me. They may inflict pain or harm upon my body, but they won’t be able to take my humanity.
On the importance of allyship
I think if you look at you look at 1968 and you look at right now, even if you look at what’s going on over in Nigeria right now, it’s police overstepping their boundaries and it’s gross to the level that no one can ignore it. There’s a refrain in the film that says the “whole world is watching.” And I think that’s one of the things that is causing all of the allies to come out now. And I think allyship is very important. I think everybody has a role in the revolution, so to speak
I think when it comes to allyship, it’s very, very important to understand that if you want a role in the movement, then that’s not going to always look the same. Just speaking of allyship and bringing it back to the film, Sacha [Baron-Cohen, who plays activist Abbie Hoffman] was one of my biggest allies on the movie. During the moments where I had to go into the back and reenact the bound and gag scene. He didn’t have to, but he came in the back, just being there, being supportive, saying, “Hey, do you need anything? Is that too tight? Are you comfortable? You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. If you don’t want to do another take, make sure that you speak up. If you’re not comfortable speaking up, I’ll do it for you.” That’s a certain type of allyship that’s equally important as being out there on the front lines saying Black Lives Matter.