I read an article recently which said that the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has led to an increasing preference for light-hearted, easy entertainment on OTT channels, as opposed to the intense, distinct and the qualitative web series that we had craved for earlier. The article further espoused how we no longer can go to a cinema hall to satisfy our fixations for comfortable family drama or action comedies.
Added to this is the inescapable lockdown blues and it is only natural that we pick up a Mirzapur or 365 Days or The Big Bang Theory over heavy, serious series that would only make us feel bleaker about the world.
Having read this article, I wondered which of the two categories I can place The Trial of the Chicago 7 into, a movie which I recently watched on Netflix. I realised I could not in either, and therein lies the genius of the film. It precariously balances between the two mentioned categories because, induced as it is with entertaining courtroom drama, dramatic dialogues and a dose of humour, it does not lose seriousness of the issue that it centrally handled.
The film follows the trial of seven men — a group of anti-Vietnam war protesters who were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This film and the trial are based on real-life events that took place in the summer of 1968 in Illinois, Chicago.
A quick context: The time in which the movie is set, America was already rife with demonstrations, protests, rallies and attempted rallies against the Vietnam war. President Johnson had escalated the American involvement in the war which translated into more soldiers being deployed, more atrocities being committed and more casualties being ensued.
The war, which also came with a huge economic cost, had no direct benefit to the domestic life of the average American, and naturally had started drawing widespread condemnation. Even before the said Chicago protests took place, it had assumed the proportions of an anti-war movement.
As much as the objective of this anti-war movement was to stop the ever-increasing recruitment of American soldiers into the war, it also aimed at opposing the violence perpetrated by the American government against a foreign country. And because it sought to question the very principles that the state held in justification of the war and the war excesses, it drew an impressive range of counter-movements — women’s liberation groups, African-American civil rights groups, Communists, Environmentalists, students and even, or rather most importantly mothers of the deployed soldiers.
Cut to the anti-CAA movement in the present times in India. It is not just the minority which would have been directly affected by the law that we were protesting — but the women’s groups, the queer groups, the journalists, the lawyers, the artists, the IIT students (and not just your Delhi humanities ones), even the usually politically neutral, liberal-minded middle class were on the streets with slogans.
The same can be said with any anti-establishment movements that the world has seen in the past decade. Indeed, this demonstrates that sometimes a pressing issue at hand does its role of triggering a sporadic protest, but sometimes that very sporadic protest becomes the starting point from where a movement gradually expands and evolves into a struggle against an oppressive regime.
The trial of Chicago 7 originally began with the trial of eight men, the eighth being an African American, Bobby Seale, a founding member of the Black Panther Party. The “draft system” (conscription like system to recruit more men into the war) unfairly forced African American men to serve at rates disproportionately higher than the general population.
In this sense, the grievances that Seale and the other members of the African-American community had were personal. The war was affecting him directly, an experience that the seven did not share with him. The mistrust he had with the other seven, including the lawyer who wished to represent him in good faith, were examples of how the fault lines can be so deeply embedded.
In one of the scenes — one of the best ones — when the lawyer and Tom Hayden (student president and one of the seven on trial) inform Bobby that his friend and fellow Black Panther member is shot down in a police encounter, he asks Hayden looking him in the eyes:
“You’ve all got the same father, right? Cut your hair, don’t be a fag, respect authority, respect America – respect me. Your life, it’s a ‘fuck-you’ to your father, right? A little?”
What he meant was that they were not the same; their frustration was from an antipathy towards the system in general and the seven could afford not to have it. He didn’t have an option because the system targeted him specifically.
For many of us who were at the anti-CAA protests — working professionals or students from the middle class, financially well off families — the protest was our way to stand up against the illiberal, parochial, dogmatic extended families and social circles we inhabit. We understand and even empathise with the ones against whom the wrongs are perpetrated. What we fall short of is experiencing the actual injustice that the victims face and standing at the receiving end of the system.
Similarly, like Bobby Seale who could never feel himself to be a part of the elusive seven, I wonder what the Dalit and the women and the queer community feels when the savarnas and the men and the cisgender community claim to represent their interests.
The rampant racial discrimination that he was constantly subjected to in the courtroom makes you uncomfortable. Why? Maybe because we can all relate to the blatant and rampant discrimination that the all-white jury and the judge had against him — in shutting him up, putting him down and tying him in the trial — or we have all witnessed or know of something similar happening with vulnerable groups in India too.
Notably being the only black member being put to trial, the motive was quite evident — it was not only to forward a “token black rouge guy” in the anti-government protests, but his conviction was also a cause to target the black panther party and put down the simmering black civil rights agitations.
Indeed, all the seven on trial represented a set of different social and political groups, and were selected based on their diversity — some to be released with a warning (a deterrent for the less threatening), some were to be condemned to jail (a punishment to the direct threat). It was, as one character keeps on emphasising, “it is a political trial”. This should serve as an eye-opener for us, in India, to observe and read between the lines as the youth arrested for participating in the anti-CAA protests are being put to trial.
There are many Hollywood movies which have featured the counterculture youth groups as a plot ploy or a reference point, but very few (in my limited knowledge of world cinema) have given them a fair representation and a platform to express what they believed and espoused — other than the sex, drugs, and the “free-living” philosophy that has been coloured in our minds.
Take the example of the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The intriguing, rather voyeuristic way in which the hippies shown only affirmed our worst stereotypes about them. Now the “Yippies” (Youth International Party whose founding members Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were put to trial) were indeed ideologically different from the “hippie” groups as they were more politically active and mainstream.
Also, the movie ended with Charles Manson influenced spree of massacres by the hippie groups, the real blending into the fictitious Quentin Tarantino “aesthetic of violence”, so I am not complaining about their misrepresentation here.
My point is that The Trial of the Chicago 7 steers away from the stereotypes about students and youth. In this film, everyone who was put to the trial was smart, articulate and genuine in their anti-war sentiment, including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. These two were portrayed as the counterculture youth groups were typically known to be — lazy, sarcastic, irreverent, messy and jobless, but they do make sense when they are asked why they have chosen to stand against the government’s diktat.
Their stands in the court and discussions outside along with the action-packed rally speeches as the film goes back and forth took me back to the time when I had gone to hear Kanhaiya Kumar and other student leaders at the peak of the JNU movement. It was also the time when Rohith Vemula had just committed suicide, when the ruling political party stooge took over the FTII and when Richa Singh became the student President of Allahabad University breaking decades of patriarchy.
Hearing the emotionally charged, fiery speeches in the non AC auditorium swarmed by people, I felt, “Hell! What these guys are speaking is grounded in facts, everyday realities of India. They are not just a bunch of azaadi screaming, lecture bunking students. They know what they are talking about. They know the consequences of it too.”
In my opinion, one of the greatest wins of this film is that it does not reduce the protesting youth to disoriented, disrespectful rebels without a cause, an image that has been carefully constructed by the mainstream media for long. Imagine Umar Khalid or Safoora Zargar and the others now, and I believe that those who have seen this movie might be more inclined to hear them out, fairly and without preconceived notions.
Even if it may seem a clique to use this word, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 was so thought-provoking in many ways. The rally and riots scenes, the speeches, the police breaking in and charging against an unarmed, peaceful crowd, the ensuing stampede and chaos where women are groped and black men are pinned down are compelling scenes. It is compelling because it captures, on the one hand, the idealism as well the consequences of that idealism, when put in action.
The police inciting riots and then making fake arrests also does not seem to be exaggerated. They are but the instruments of coercion to retain the status quo. What is right, and what is wrong indeed gets blurred once the lathi and the gun are given in their hands. I applaud the timing in which the movie was released. At the time where the pandemic has rendered so many people jobless and poor.
In India, the NRC and CAA are waiting at our doorstep and the potent deprivation from necessities will combine the fear of being stripped off from citizenship. Protests, followed by brutal police crackdown may ensue again. It is at this juncture, as we watch The Trial of the Chicago 7, we enlighten ourselves with facts from the past and present. We would know with whom to stand for the sake of our democracy.