The Chicago 8, an independent film honored by a couple of film festivals (Beverly Hills Film Festival and Atlanta Film Festival) had its LA premiere last night at UCLA Law School auditorium. It is a docudrama of the landmark trial in 1969 in which the federal government charged a group of social activists with conspiracy to incite riot at the previous year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The screening, reception at the UCLA Law School, and discussion afterwards were sponsored by the Lawyers Guild and the Veterans Law Society. Arienna Grody of the Lawyers Guild explained that they want to spread the word at the academic level to inspire more progressive lawyers. Copies of the film are available on dvd via their website and hopefully it will soon appear in theaters.
Georja: This is a must see movie. The Chicago 8 is important for its historical significance. Writer, director, producer Pinchas Perry poured through thousands of pages of documents and did an excellent job of forming this 88-minute piece from them. As art, as courtroom drama, it doesn’t get much spicier than this tale. Not only are the characters well drawn and engaging but their antics in the courtroom are not to be believed! A judge loses control of the court as a clash of generations and philosophies is played out as political theatre by these brave social activists. They were so strongly anti-war, anti “the man” and so confident that they could overthrow the old order, or at least that they would give their lives trying.
Gerald: In fact, the group of defendants were very loosely associated with each other, if at all in some cases. They were tried as an example to suppress widespread dissent over the ongoing war in Vietnam. These days the U.S. has an all-volunteer military supplemented by private contractors. But back then, any healthy male over the age of 18 could be drafted and sent to fight, with few loopholes. During that conflict, more than 50,000 U.S. troops were killed, and on the order of 20 times that number of Vietnamese military and civilians on both sides lost their lives. The Chicago 8 trial was, by any definition, a circus, a kangaroo court, and contrived political theater. Most of the jail time the defendants got was mainly the result of contempt of court citations by the irate and quarrelsome judge Julius Hoffman (played brilliantly by veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall). Years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals would acknowledge this travesty of justice by reversing Hoffman’s rulings and the jury’s guilty findings on incitement to riot (there were no findings of guilt on conspiracy counts).
Georja: We get a flavor of the late 60s Yippie revolution, the ardor of the activists, the frustration and fear of the government played out by the judge and government prosecutors. Perry, Israeli born, said when he found out about this trial, he just couldn’t believe this happened in America, and he was moved to make this film. Content is outstanding although the film had an overall dark look to it -one would have hoped for some enhanced lighting.
Gerald: This movie is both fascinating drama and an important social document. Many of the “conspirators” have since died, but John Froines, who is currently a professor of environmental chemistry at UCLA, was in the audience. In the Q&A that followed, he commented that there have been several plays and movies based on the trial, but he had high praise for the realism of this one.
Georja: It was a great testimony. Froines rated this version of the trial as the most accurate of all the plays and films that have been made on the topic and he even revealed that he was sobbing throughout. Froines commented that today’s protests need more organization and structure. People today often think they can’t change anything; back then, they felt that they could and they did end the war.
Gerald: Perry trained as a lawyer and as a filmmaker, and he obviously has a keen sense of both the legal issues and the drama. He explained that a key decision was to focus on the eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (Orlando Jones), the African-American leader of the Black Panther Party. Early in the trial, he decided he did not want to be represented by civil-rights defense attorney William Kunstler (Gary Cole). Judge Hoffman did not permit Seale to defend himself, apparently fearing that he’d use his remarks in court to expound on his radical views. Seale was then understandably furious and then repeatedly disruptive. Most of the contempt citations resulted from outbursts and altercations in which the other defendants came to Bobby’s aid. Further into the trial, Seale’s case was severed from the proceedings, and the defendants became more commonly known as the “Chicago 7.”
Georja: Jones is riveting as Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in the courtroom for insisting on his right to represent himself. Cole is inspiring as the attorney who leads with his heart, and actually breaks down and bawls in the courtroom. Patrick MacKenzie is awesome as Dave Dillinger who tells his daughter about one of his heroes, Mahatma Ghandi, who practiced activism into his 80s. He obviously intends to follow suit and leads with his idealism.
Some of the actors were present. It was especially fun meeting Emmy nominee Mayim Bailik (who plays brainy Amy Farra Fowler on The Big Bang Theory) who played Jerry Rubin’s (Danny Masterson) girlfriend, Nancy Kurshan. Bailik was a child actor and took 12 years off to get her education – in neuroscience - at UCLA and was glad to be participating at her alma mater.
Gerald: Watching this movie about a time I lived through, I’m struck by both the similarities and the differences between then and now. We have social unrest because of unpopular wars and related economic problems. But today we have such a more complex media environment. It’s difficult to imagine how a sensational court case was covered by just three national evening news organizations and a handful of major metropolitan newspapers. People actually read articles back then! No tweets, no sound bytes, no spin doctors, and less pop-media distraction such as Hollywood celebrity misbehavior grabbing the headlines. Crazy as the times were, it seemed there was a dialogue back then. Now, it’s political posturing and sentence fragments, with precious little content.
Georja: The Chicago 8 could encourage activists today and all Americans to remember what our basic rights are and what is worth fighting for. The dedicated actions of the Chicago 8 definitely made a mark on American history, although it seems every new generation must find its own way to hold onto these rights. Blogging, Internet news and facebook definitely help get the messages out and can help build a critical mass. As long as that mass is not distracted by the next new thing first.
Photos copyright Chicago 8
Photos of reception and Mayim Balik by Georja Umano
Georja Umano is an actor and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of The Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.