Themed Playlist: Beyond Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7
Howard Brodie. NLF Flag Tug of War, Enemy Flag, 1969. Color crayon on white paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00)
LC-DIG-ppmsca-51106 © Estate of Howard Brodie
Gift of Howard Brodie.
From Regina Longo (Brown University)
After watching Aaron Sorkin’s latest revisionist account of 20th century U.S. political history on Netflix, I had many thoughts. Most of them were related to how Sorkin’s spin on this story—adapted many times for film, TV, and live theater since the 1969-70 trial popularly known as the Chicago Seven case, U.S. v. Dellinger, et al [appealed at 472 F.2d 340 (1972)] made frontpage headlines— would soon move beyond a definitive pop cultural account of the era and become largely accepted as fact.
As an audiovisual archivist, my stock-in-trade is documenting, preserving, digitizing, and making accessible audiovisual content for use and reuse. I believe that the archives of public and governmental histories especially, can and should be made available to the widest possible audience. I believe that artists, historians (amateur and professional), educators, and legal and governmental bodies, should be able to examine historical documents and evidence in order to reconsider, revise, reinterpret and rewrite histories. As an archivist who supports access, it is also critical to maintain the integrity of source documents, whether they are writings, drawings, court transcripts, objects, photographs, or moving images. Each use, reuse, interpretation and reinterpretation, must be marked as such.
It has become commonplace for audiences to pull out their cell phones or computers while watching historical revisionist tales and to begin their own adventures in fact checking. This practice is so commonplace that most mainstream press reviews of films based on historical events now lead in with headlines like “What X film got wrong [or right].” There are a slew of these reviews for The Trial of the Chicago 7. Such reviews are a start, but in simply comparing a reinterpretation to the “facts” viewers are bound to encounter another series of interpretations that require fact checking and unraveling.
To this end, I have compiled a list inspired by my initial reactions to Sorkin’s The Chicago 7. This list is by no means exhaustive. I have listed media that I have personally seen/heard/read on the subject over the course of several years. These adaptations and responses resurfaced in my mind’s eye as I watched Sorkin’s film. In researching and confirming the facts for each selection I have included, I went down an archival rabbit hole that resulted in more list making. Such is the nature of research. Since I began compiling this list the Wikipedia page “Chicago Seven” has been significantly updated, as have many other online resources. [hyperlink: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Seven]
Because the Playlist Initiative came about as a response to the pandemic, as a way to share information about materials that are accessible under current global conditions of remote learning and stay at home orders, I have deliberately confined this list to materials that can be accessed digitally and remotely, and by international publics, and materials for which physical media is available for purchase, rental, or loan from a distributor, reseller, or a library. It is my hope that readers of this condensed list that have viewed The Chicago 7 will appreciate Sorkin’s well-crafted narrative and identify Sorkin as spin doctor and interpreter of histories toward specific [White American] neoliberal ends. This list is an introduction to how one might dig more deeply into earlier fictional adaptations of and creative responses to this trial that was sensationalized by the press as it was occurring in 1969-70, to begin to locate original source documents created as a result of U.S. v. Dellinger, et al, to locate archival materials created by the individuals and institutions that were involved in the trial, and finally to think more broadly about the genre of trial re-enactment narratives that permeate contemporary media.
I want to thank archivist Justin LaLiberty, media scholar Greg Burris, and Brad Stevens for engaging in my initial Facebook post about Sorkin’s film and continuing the conversation and the adventures down the rabbit holes.
Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (Jeremy Kagan, 1987)
If you can handle cheesy 1980s video graphics, this early HBO Films production that is streaming on Amazon Prime (free with subscription) and for free (without any subscription) on YouTube is worth your time. This 1987 production is a docudrama. It is adapted from the stage play Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 written by Ron Sossi and Frank Condon. It features interviews with all 8 of the men who were on trial, including Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman (just two years before he committed suicide in 1989), Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, and their lawyer William Kunstler. It sticks to the court transcripts more closely than Sorkin’s version, which takes events out of order for dramatic effect. While Sorkin’s chronology works for the story he has chosen to create, it greatly distorts the timeline of the courtroom drama and important historical events that happened around that same time, including the Chicago police murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton.
The Chicago 8 (Pinchas Perry, 2011)
This film received a very lukewarm response on its initial release, and like other films on the subject, it seems to cherry pick excerpts from the official trial transcripts in order to construct a narrative about the 1969-70 trial, and its key players. Unlike the other films on the subject, it attempts to humanize Judge Julius Hoffman, providing a backstory for him, which ultimately does nothing to make the character more sympathetic and results in splintering the arc of the courtroom drama.
The film is available to stream on Amazon UK.
Steal This Movie (Robert Greenwald, 2000)
The title of the film is an homage to Hoffman’s book Steal This Book(1971). While the film focuses more on events in the life of Abbie Hoffman after 1968, it does provide some information on Hoffman’s entrée into political activism. The screenplay was adapted from several books penned by Hoffman himself. Hoffman’s son, America Hoffman, filed suit against the film distributors to have the film banned because he was offended by the portrayal of his relationship with his father, but he eventually dropped the lawsuit.
The Conspiracy Circus: Chicago 70 (Kerry Feltham, 1970)
This film was a collaboration with Toronto Workshop Productions (TWP), a well-known Canadian theatrical group. The film was adapted from the play that was originally directed and produced by George Luscombe and the TWP ensemble during the moment in which they were experimenting with forms of documentation and activism in theater. According to Brad Stevens, this film is “a bizarre combination of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and the court transcripts from the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial.” Filmed in 16mm on a low budget, this seems to be the only feature film that Feltham produced.
The film does not portray all of the Chicago 7, the most notable missing character is Tom Hayden.
The filmmaker now teaches high school in California and distributes this film on DVD. Currently, this film seems to only be available on DVD from the director who can be contacted via LinkedIn [Hyperlink: linkedin.com/in/kerry-feltham-03287218] or at the University of Toronto Libraries.
Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969)
For media studies professors who might consider teaching the Sorkin version, I strongly encourage requiring students to watch earlier dramatic adaptations of this important history. Wexler’s feature film debut uses the actual 1968 Democratic National Convention as a backdrop to its fictional story of a hardened TV news cameraman capturing the social unrest that permeated the convention. In the film the cameraman (Robert Forester) discovers that the network has been in cahoots with the FBI sharing footage that he shot with the State, and he turns on his corporate media employer to join with the protestors he had been documenting. Wexler and his crew shot the climactic scenes of Medium Cool during the riots that broke out at the convention on the streets of Chicago.
The film received mixed reviews on its original release, but this progressive review by Roger Ebert should be required reading as well. The film is now generally recognized, to quote the words of the Criterion Collection, “as prescient a political film as Hollywood has ever produced.” Criterion has given the film their 4K remastering and re-release treatment. I recommend all the additional content on their Director-Approved Special Edition that includes the original theatrical trailer, audio commentaries with the director and crew, extended excerpts of a documentary on the making of the film and on the actual historical figures that are fictionalized in the film, and a new reflections from Wexler on the Occupy movement’s protests against the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, and a new essay on the film by critic and programmer Thomas Beard. This material is currently not available on the Criterion Channel, but it is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Transcripts U.S. v. Dellinger, et al [appealed at 472 F.2d 340 (1972)]
Professor Douglas O. Linder’s web resource “Famous Trials” that is maintained by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law has compiled an incredibly thorough resource of legal information and archival materials pertaining to the trial and subsequent appellate decisions. The site includes a detailed account and summary of the events leading up to and surrounding the trial, and links to a curated selection of original audio recordings from the trial. These bear listening. Because no cameras were allowed in the courtroom, audio recordings and courtroom sketches are the only audiovisual archives of the process as it was occurring.
Famous Trials resource: https://famous-trials.com/chicago8/1366-home
At no cost, any individual can also access the website Casetext (which also has a subscription service, but that is not needed for this particular file) and receive a 76-page PDF of the summary of the 1972 appeal decisions of the 7th Circuit Court. https://casetext.com/case/united-states-v-dellinger-2
Complete transcripts of the trial number 22,000 pages and can be accessed on microfilm at many libraries throughout the US and internationally. Some of these institutions can also provide digital access to these transcripts, but this service will usually only be available to individuals directly affiliated with the institution.
However, Simon & Schuster just timed their 50th anniversary reprinting and publication of the The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Official Transcript edited by Mark L. Levine, George C. McNamee, and Daniel L. Greenberg, with a new introduction by Aaron Sorkin for release with the Netflix film. These transcripts were originally published as The Tales of Hoffman. A new paperback and Kindle edition are available.
Library of Congress Courtroom Drawings from the Trial of the Chicago 8
The Library of Congress holds and has preserved some of the courtroom drawings. And yes, if you are wondering if that excuse for a judge, Julius Hoffman, really did order his Marshals to bind, gag, and chain the only black defendant, Bobby Seale, for three days in a US federal court of law, he did. Here is the image as rendered by a courtroom sketch artist Howard Brodie. [Hyperlink: https://www.loc.gov/…/pol…/bobby-seale-bound-and-gagged/] The drawings have been curated on the Library’s website in a feature titled “Drawing Justice: Political Activists on Trial,” which includes several other drawings of the trial by the artists Howard Brodie, including the image of Abbie Hoffman that is used at the top of this list. The Drawing Justice website also highlights a larger collection of trial sketches related to various types of courtroom trials.
Selected records relating to Bobby Seale at the US National Archives
The US National Archives holds more materials than what they have curated on this page, but this is an invaluable resource to selected records in the public domain that pertain to US government surveillance and interaction with Bobby Seale. It includes paper documents, photos, audio recordings, and motion picture material. This webpage is featured in the US National Archives African American Heritage Series with a brief biography of Bobby Seale. [Hyperlink: https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/individuals/bobby-seale?_ga=2.246774148.1678389288.1607288557-1847200737.1602599334]
Selected records relating to the Chicago 8 at the US National Archives
As with the recordings on Bobby Seale held at the US National Archives, this webpage [ https://catalog.archives.gov/id/6210763] also links to paper documents, photos, audio recordings, and motion picture material on several of the defendants in the trial. As stated on the US government website: “This criminal case file relates to the case in which the defendants, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale were accused of inciting riots during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. On March 20, 1969, the grand jury returned indictments on the eight persons on charges of conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce with the intent to incite a riot, in violation of the Anti-Riot Act. Six of the defendants were indicted on individual charges of traveling in interstate commerce with the intent to incite a riot, in violation of the Anti-Riot Act. The trial of these individuals began on September 24, 1969 and lasted 13 months. On November 5, Judge Hoffman sentenced Bobby Seale to four years in prison for contempt of court and declared a mistrial in the prosecution of Seale. The case file includes the transcript of the proceedings, an indictment, appearances, bench warrants, citations, dockets, mandates, motions, notice of appeal, petitions, orders, statement of proceedings, subpoenas, and a verdict.”
Judge Julius Hoffman Papers (1930-1984)
This collection is housed at the Chicago History Museum and a complete finding aid to the collection is available online. As the abstract in the finding aid states: “The collection contains correspondence, news clippings, legal records, speeches, and sound recordings by or about Julius J. Hoffman, a judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Most of the papers concern Judge Hoffman’s handling of the Chicago Seven Conspiracy trial (1969-1970) and include letters from the public regarding him (mostly favorable) and 10 audio recordings of television news coverage about the events. Smaller amounts of material concern Judge Hoffman’s involvement in other well-known trials, including Durovic-Krebiozen cancer cure case (1965); Kamsler case (1968, 1969); South Holland (Ill.) School District 151 case (1969); Tell City case (1962); United States v. Accardo (1962); United States v. Isaacs, Kerner (1971); Frank Walus immigration case (1978). Mementos of his professional career, 1944-1983, and correspondence with relatives also are in the collection. Oversize folders contain court room drawings, enlargements of newspaper articles, certificates, etc.”
In our current climate, reference archivists at the Chicago History Museum may be able to share select digital access to these holdings. Much of the materials may already be digitized because of the high demand for this material over the past 50 years.
Abbie Hoffman Papers at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin
The Briscoe Center acquired this collection in 2018, and the collection is still being processed and digitized. In November 2020 I attended an audiovisual archives conference and heard first hand from the archivist who processed part of this collection. The archivist was on a contract at UT, and has since moved on to a permanent position in another institution. It is a very large collection and work is ongoing to make it available for access. According to the press release from the Briscoe Center, “The Abbie Hoffman Papers include drafts of his speeches; FBI records related to their surveillance of him; correspondence with a wide variety of individuals including Jimmy Carter, Norman Mailer, John Lennon, David Bowie, Allen Ginsburg, and Studs Terkel; photographs; posters; and ephemera.” A quick search of their digital collections online database reveals that much work is still needed to make this collection available digitally. Currently, only one photo of Hoffman is available online.
Photo of Hoffman: https://www.cah.utexas.edu/db/dmr/image_lg.php?variable=e_wm_0143
The Briscoe Center: https://www.cah.utexas.edu/db/dmr/index_browse.php?collection=yes
Another List on the Subject
Audiovisual Archivist and research Justin LaLiberty, who is currently the archivists for the distribution label Vinegar Syndrome has compiled a fantastic list on letterboxd of “Films on 1968 that aren’t written or directed [or produced] by Aaron Sorkin.” Check out this list for some of the films I have mentioned on my list and much more on the theme of 1968. This list includes films that feature global events related to 1968, and a series of films related to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Greg Burris has been researching and writing about representations of the Black Panthers in cinema for many years. In 2015 he published an article in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies titled ‘Prometheus in Chicago: Film Portrayals of the Chaining and Gagging of Bobby Seale and the “Real-ization” of Resistance’. This article is behind a paywall, but can be accessed at many public and university libraries internationally.
In response to Sorkin’s film, Burris and I had a brief Facebook exchange, in which Burris stated, “I understand artists take certain liberties, but just so everyone knows, Fred Hampton’s death had nothing to do with Bobby Seale’s chains, Seale was bound and gagged for three days of the trial not a few minutes, committed pacifist David Dellinger never hit anybody, Jerry Rubin wasn’t arrested while stopping a rape and his FBI tail was a man not a woman, and all of the defendants were more radical than the film lets on, especially Abbie.” As a result of that comment several colleagues encouraged him to revisit his 2015 article in light of Sorkin’s film. The result is “Prometheus on Netflix: How The Trial of the Chicago 7 Sideline’s a Black Panther’s Struggle,” published on November 3, 2020 by Film International, and freely available to read online.
About the featured image: Howard Brodie. NLF Flag Tug of War, Enemy Flag, 1969. Color crayon on white paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00)
LC-DIG-ppmsca-51106 © Estate of Howard Brodie
Gift of Howard Brodie