Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"The Chicago 8" with Danny Masterson and Orlando James (2011)

Based on actual transcripts from the Chicago 8 trial, this film explores the heady world of the late 1960’s and the 1968 Democratic Convention. It is focused mainly on the subsequent trial of 8 main participants in the demonstrations that took place there in what was described by news reporters as a “police riot.” 

The names are familiar to anyone who grew up during those days; Abbie Hoffman, played by Thomas Ian Nicholas; Jerry Rubin, played by Danny Masterson of “The ‘70’s Show”; Bobbie Seale, played by Orlando Jones; Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Phillip Baker Hall, and Defense Attorney William Kunstler, played by Gary Cole. There were 5 other defendants, one of whom was later elected to Congress and married to Jane Fonda. You may decide on which was the greater achievement.

The film is narrowly focused on the abuses of the Prosecution during the trial, including the infamous binding and gagging of Black Panther Bobby Seale, who was acting as his own attorney. A very neat trick to pull off while bound to a chair with a rag stuffed in your mouth.

To be fair, the film leaves out an awful lot about the plans to disrupt the convention in a way that would insure violence took place. However, the police did go way overboard in their re-action; deliberately corralling the protesters into the park from 3 sides, with the river to their backs and no place to go when ordered to disperse. To anyone who grew up at the time, watching it unfold on TV was just as unbelievable as watching Lee Harvey Oswald murdered only 5 years earlier. It just didn’t seem possible.

Judge Hoffman was the perfect villain for the role which was thrust upon him. He was ruthless in his censuring of both the defendants and their attorney, William Kunstler. At various times during the trial he had almost all of the black spectators escorted from the courtroom for even the slightest whisper. Everything portrayed in this film actually happened, which is what makes it such an important film to see, if only to dispel the notion that “it can’t happen here.” It did. And it can happen again.

The music was, of course, all 1960’s and there was body painting and drug use enough to satisfy viewers of all ages. But that’s the part of the film that kind of annoyed me. They were heady days, no doubt about it, and there was plenty of drug use and body painting going on.  But the younger people seeing this film may misconstrue these to be what the “revolution” was all about. And that’s a pity.

The film did begin with an encapsulated history of the war, beginning with Kennedy, and breezes through the Johnson years, which is when the largest build-up of American forces took place. The war is thus cast as being the sole result of President Nixon’s policies, which drew down the number of forces from 500,000 when he took office, to less than 45,000 within about 6 years.

As I am writing this I realize that the film takes place at the Democratic Convention, yet the trial seems to center on the policies of the newly elected President Nixon. This annoyed me, as it misrepresents not only history, but also the actual purpose of the demonstrators in Chicago at the time of the Convention. Most were there to keep Hubert Humphrey from getting the nomination for Presidency, having campaigned hard for Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy, who had been killed only about 8 weeks before the convention took place. Both of these men, and recent events, are completely left out of the story.

This is an interesting film to watch, as it exposes the dynamics of political dissent in America back in the 1960’s. Watching the events in the courtroom unfold, you realize that the defendants never had a chance. The word had come down from above that the men, and their lawyer, were to be convicted at all costs. The proof of this assertion is that not one of the defendants were convicted of the crimes for which they were charged. They all received jail terms for “Contempt of Court”, arising out of their own  courtroom antics, and all were; at a later time; pardoned, calling into question whether they were really convicted by anyone but themselves in the first place.

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