This article contains spoilers for The Trial of the Chicago 7
Between Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong arriving in court dressed as judges, and the snappy walk-and-talk crosscutting, Aaron Sorkin's new Netflix thriller, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is about as straightforwardly Hollywood as a courtroom drama gets.
But really, the true story of the riots and the trial is even more strange and vivid than the one you see play out on screen. In fact, what Sorkin left out might make for an even better film than what he included. Although we're sorry to tell you that no, Rubin didn't catch a flung egg on his way in.
So, is The Trial of the Chicago 7 a true story?
As a rule with dramas based on real events, it's a case of working out where the historical record ends and artistic license takes over, but that's not quite the problem here. More happened during the riots and ensuing court case than could be crammed into a trilogy of films, so it's more a case of outlining the extra madness which didn't make the final script. Of course, it's nearly impossible to know what the defendants might have said to each other or fought about outside the courtroom, but hey, that's historical dramas, buddy.
It all starts with the riots
The riots themselves started on 28 August 1968, when several thousand protestors tried to march to the International Amphitheatre, where the Democratic National Congress was being held. The summer of 1968 had been the bloodiest yet in Vietnam; more than 1,000 American soldiers were dying each month. In Chicago, the very recent death of Dean Johnson, a young man shot by police after he pulled a gun on them, was another factor in the febrile atmosphere at the protests.
If Sorkin's film presents the police as malevolent and violent, it's not far from the truth. The Walker Report, the official enquiry into the riots, was based on 20,000 pages of testimony from more than 3,000 witnesses, and was unequivocal in its conclusion:
"Individual policemen, and lots of them, committed violent acts far in excess of the requisite force for crowd dispersal or arrest," it surmised. "To read dispassionately the hundreds of statements describing at firsthand the events of Sunday and Monday nights is to become convinced of the presence of what can only be called a police riot."
While protestors did go out of their way to antagonise police, the response was disproportionate and brutal. Hemmed in by police, Tom Hayden and other protestors did end up being shoved through a plate glass window at the Conrad Hilton hotel, too.
"They started pulling off one person at a time, spraying Mace in their eyes, striking their ribs or kidneys with clubs and tripping them," he recalled in his memoir. "Their eyes were bulging with hate, and they were screaming with a sound that I have never heard from a human being."
"They planned to give what they thought of as a spoiled generation, a good ripping, a good beating and they did," Frank Kusch, author of Battleground Chicago, concluded after interviewing dozens of police who were there.
One major figure of the protests who we don't meet in the film is Pigasus, the Yippies' preferred candidate for the 1968 presidential election, who was a pig. After Pigasus was formally nominated, he was set loose, and Rubin and six others were arrested.
There were endless stunts and pieces of theatre throughout the five months of the trial. The defence called countercultural singers, including Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins – who sang 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?' from the stand – as well as writers Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, LSD advocate Timothy Leary, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, to testify.
As depicted in the film, Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale was supposed to be represented by the group's retained legal counsel, Charles Garry, but he was taken ill on the eve of the trial (Garry was a famously theatrical and antiestablishment lawyer, who once annoyed a police officer he was questioning so much that he leapt out of the witness box and pulled a gun on him. As well as the Panthers, he represented alleged Communists during the McCarthy hearings, and the Reverend Jim Jones, prior to his cult's mass suicide in Georgetown). Seale's protestations that the absence of his lawyer meant he wasn't represented, and judge Julius Hoffman's reactions, were all as they're depicted in the film.
"This racist administration government with its Superman notions and comic book politics," Seale told Hoffman at one stage. "We're hip to the fact that Superman saved no black people. You got that?... You have did everything you could with those jive lying witnesses up there presented by these pig agents of the government to lie and say and condone some rotten racists, fascist crap by racist cops and pigs that beat people's heads in and I demand my constitutional rights!"
Seale wasn't just gagged and chained to a chair for a single session, either – the indignity lasted several days.
The removal of the jurors
As depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7, two jurors received threatening letters that read "You are being watched", purportedly from the Black Panthers, but which were almost certainly forgeries (the defendants claimed it was a government attempt to remove the pair because, unlike the other jurors, they were "open, honest and impartial").
It's also true that judge Hoffman was key in making sure the recipients read them in the way they were intended, although it happened in court, rather than his chambers. After the letters had been read out, and Hoffman questioned her understanding of it, Kunstler objected that Hoffman had "led" the juror. Dellinger later complained that it was tantamount to "sandbagging one of the jurors of whom [the government] were afraid" and that it "adds up to collusion between the judge and the government to deprive us of a fair and impartial juror."
However, the second juror who received a letter said that she was unmoved, and could remain impartial. She remained on the jury, as did a third juror who she'd spoken to about the letters.
No, Jerry Rubin wasn't honeytrapped
Agent Daphne Fitzgerald, the undercover agent who dupes Rubin into trusting her with some doe eyes and the "in France, one egg is un oeuf" gag (which Sorkin anoraks will have noted turned up in The West Wing too) didn't exist. There were, however, three intelligence agents who infiltrated the group and reported the activists' conversations to the court. One of them told the court about the time that he "was with a fellow known as Gorilla who headed a motorcycle gang, and another fellow by the name of Banana".
No, David Dellinger didn't punch anyone
The pacifist and former Boy Scout leader is shown decking a bailiff in court and apologising profusely before it, but nothing like that actually happened in court. He did deck someone while he was a student at Yale, but he was so revolted by himself that he sat with his victim and "cradled him until he came to".
The contempt charges
The citations Judge Hoffman handed out for contempt were certainly extraordinarily harsh, and ran to 175 individual counts. Kunstler was sentenced to four years in jail for calling the judge "Mr Hoffman", rather than "your honour". Seale got the same sentence, to along with the gagging and binding. Hayden was given a year for protesting about Seale's treatment. Abbie Hoffman got eight months for laughing in court. When the contempt charges were retried under a different judge, most were dropped and none of the defendants were sentenced to time or fines.
The antagonism went even further too. The judge ordered that the defendants have their long hair shaved off after sentencing, and the Sheriff of Cook County, Joe Woods, held Abbie Hoffman's hair aloft as a trophy at a press conference.
The pranks depicted in the film are true – Hoffman and Rubin did wear judge's robes over police uniforms – but in real life they took the piss even more. Among other moments, Hoffman once swore in while flipping a middle finger at the judge, told him he was a "shande fur de Goyim" ('a disgrace in front of the Gentiles' in Yiddish) and "would have served Hitler better". They even placed a small Vietnamese flag on their table, which was quickly snatched away by a court official.
The ending of The Trial of the Chicago 7 is pure Hollywood. Tom Hayden didn't read out the names of every American who'd died in Vietnam since the start of the trial at the sentencing; rather, Dellinger managed to read a few names on Vietnam Moratorium Day, 15 October 1969, before being shut down by Judge Hoffman.
And even if things had happened as Sorkin's film has them, then prosecutor Richard Schultz definitely wouldn't have stood up in respect (he was considered the government's "pit bull", according to New York Times journalist J Anthony Lukas, with an aggressive and uncompromising approach).
The actual denouement, which you can read here, was perhaps even more moving, especially in light of the institutional racism that still the justice system. The white defendants used their statements to berate not just the figures in their own trial, but the way Black defendants were treated every day.
"Whatever happens to us," said Dellinger, "however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the Black people in this country, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail."
Rubin offered a similar indictment, saying: "I am glad we exposed the court system because in millions of courthouses across this country Blacks are being shuttled from the streets to the jails and nobody knows about it. They are forgotten men. There ain't a whole corps of press people sitting and watching. They don't care. You see what we have done is, we have exposed that. Maybe now people will be interested in what happens in the courthouse down the street because of what happened here. Maybe now people will be interested."
Kunstler also quoted from Clarence Darrow's defence of the Communist Party in 1920: "What do you suppose would have happened to the working men except for these rebels all the way down through history? Think of the complacent cowardly people who never raise their voices against the powers that be. If there had been only these, you gentlemen of the jury would be hewers of wood and drawers of water. You gentlemen would have been slaves. You gentlemen owe whatever you have and whatever you hope to these brave rebels who dared to think, and dared to speak, and dared to act."
Beautiful stuff. The real ending to the trial was more low-key ending than the film's, but it was still absolutely in keeping with the rest of the trial. It ended with Abbie Hoffman heckling the announcement of their fines ("Five thousand dollars, Judge? Could you make that three-fifty?") and defence attorney William Kunstler bickering with Judge Hoffman.
"Your Honour, I just said a moment ago we had a concluding remark," he says, clearly narked. "Your Honour has succeeded perhaps, in sullying it, and I think maybe that is the way the case should end, as it began."
All the convictions were reversed on 21 November 1972 by the Court of Appeals of the Seventh Circuit, mainly because Judge Hoffman was found to be biased when he refused to let the defence attorneys screen jurors for racial and cultural bias, and because the FBI had bugged their offices.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more delivered straight to your inbox
Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts
You Might Also Like