‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ & Delhi Riots: We Need A Few Good Men

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ shows when a few good men take the stand, all propaganda is doomed to defeat.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
A still from Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ now streaming on Netflix. 
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"This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to persons living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental."

A child born this year in India might see a disclaimer like this a decade or two later and wonder what happened in this country in 2020. Only with this disclaimer can the reality of the riots in Delhi be depicted, minimising criminal litigation threats from various authorities.

It will take time for a desi Aaron Sorkin to make The Trial of the Delhi Conspirators, considering what recently happened to an innocuous advertisement of a jewellery brand. Till then, let’s take heart in a depiction of parallels in history.

Sorkin’s latest historical court-room drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is about everything that the Indian government is likely to find seditious and anti-national, except, perhaps, Alan Ginsberg’s ‘Om’ chant.

Oh wait, that might be seen as a sneaky ploy to tarnish Hinduism’s image.

The Plot: Facts and Fiction

The plot is simple, the historical facts are known. Sorkin focuses to bring alive through a stellar cast of Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Barn Cohen, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt and others the mis-trial of the Chicago Seven in 1969 and 1970 in the US.

The federal government had charged a group of eight defendants—including the founder of Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale—of conspiracy to incite riots during the anti-Vietnam War protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Mis-trials make for great drama. Think Ngugi wa Thiong’O‘s ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’, co-written with Micere Githae Mugo.

Bobby Seale, the co-founder the Black Panther Party
Bobby Seale, the co-founder the Black Panther Party
Image: US Department of Justice archives

Seale’s trial was eventually severed from the proceedings and the remaining defendants—Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner—came to be known as the Chicago Seven.

The Chicago Seven and Bobby Seale
The Chicago Seven and Bobby Seale
Image Courtesy: Hulton Archive

This story is about a cohesive—well, almost—attempt, sanctioned at the highest level of the US establishment, to ascribe the violence in Chicago to the acts and speeches of the Chicago Seven.

For an Indian viewer, “Any similarities to persons living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”

Judge Julius Hoffman hands out contempt charge to the defendants and their lawyers at the drop of the hat, with an unforgiving bang of his gavel.

Again, “Any similarities to persons living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”

Are Institutions Inherently Oppressive?

Sorkin’s film has unmistakable glimpses of his acclaimed play—later made into a film—A Few Good Men, in the manner the courtroom proceedings are depicted. Realism punctuated with rhetoric and drama. His faith in his country’s institutions remains tinted with idealism despite the depiction of police brutality, corrupt polity, and vindictive judiciary.

Why else would he give lines like, “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people” to Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen)?

Sacha Baron Cohen
Sacha Baron Cohen
(Photo: imDb)

People, not institutions, are the problem. People—from Justice Hoffman to trigger-happy, name-badge-removing policemen, and emotionally charged demonstrators—not institutions.

What makes The Trial a tour de force for director Sorkin is that his own worldview is also put to test through argumentative confrontations between various characters. And the repartees are a delight to watch. He brings the Bakhtinian ‘carnivalesque’ to the screen. His clown, Abbie Hoffman, is an imperfect idealist, which he pits against the calm yet instinctively reactive pragmatist Hayden (Redmayne).

Does the ‘Left’ Hate the Military and Law Enforcement Agencies?

Sorkin has, more than once, tried to establish that despite what the Right-wing ideologues would have everyone believe, the Left is not an enemy of soldiers and the military. His A Few Good Men had a perennial strain of not-so-subliminal empathy for the men and women in uniform that live and die, or face trials, for the ideals enshrined in the American constitution.

Lt.Kaffee and Col. Jessep in a face-off in an Indian adaptation of Sorkin’s A Few Good Men
Lt.Kaffee and Col. Jessep in a face-off in an Indian adaptation of Sorkin’s A Few Good Men
(Photo Courtesy: Aadyam) 

The record of the American martyrs of the Vietnam War works like a charm in driving this point home. Sorkin brings theatre in all its glory to screen towards the end of the film when Hayden calmly reads out the names of around 5000 US soldiers killed in Vietnam since the trial started.

Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden 
Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden 
Image: Netflix screengrab

Another powerful scene in the film is the 66th United States Attorney General’s acceptance to be in the witness box despite the establishment’s displeasure. Of course, putting Michael Keaton in the shoes of a key historical player has its benefits. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clarke’s testimony in the trial proved to be elemental in the eventual outcome for the defendants. Sorkin pits Hayden, a new age Democrat, against Clarke in an exploration of the idea of ‘courage’.

66th United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark
66th United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Sorkin’s film is not just about the United States and its institutions, it is about a universal tug of war between establishments and counter-culture. Yes, Sorkin is sympathetic towards dissenters, but he does not undermine the institutions.

There is no dearth of good men and women, those who wouldn't tolerate injustices and humiliations meted out to the members of marginalised communities. And once they take the stand, all misinformation and propaganda lay defeated.

Will India’s Ramsey Clark please stand up?

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