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Tragedy or Farce? Reflections on Aaron Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7”

Still from The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Netflix.)

Do all world historical facts and personage occur twice? The first time as tragedy, the second as farce?  Marx apparently thought so. His often quoted comment on that subject appears in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. It’s the best part of that book, though there’s also a terrific description of Parisian bohemia and bohemians. Marx didn’t care for it and them, though the German police described him in their reports as a “bohemian.” After all, he was bearded, stayed at home with the family and wrote.

I thought about Marx’s comment after I saw Aaron Sorkin’s recreation of the Chicago 7 trial, now a movie on Netflix. I watched it on the screen of my desktop. I wasn’t entertained and wasn’t looking for entertainment. Sorkin and the folks at Netflix would like us to think that 1968 and 2020 are mirror images of one another. That’s one of the ways they’re trying to market the film. At the same time, Bobby Seale, Rennie Davis and Judy Gumbo are trying to use the occasion of the film to generate protests here and now. All power to them and all power to the people, as the Panthers used to say, but there must be more effective ways of getting folks into the streets now. I’m all in favor of discussion of the film and how it does or doesn’t accurately reflect those times when the Vietnam War was at its height, and Vietnamese and Americans were dying on battlefields that were close to home for the Vietnamese and far away for the Americans.

I’ve read articles that say that 2020 is not only a repeat of 1968, but also a repeat of 1820 and 1920. Some of those articles are entertaining. I think that more than anything they reflect a widespread feeling of confusion among citizens and voters who don’t see familiar signposts. Perhaps Sorkin’s movie will help them. But maybe not. The U.S. government seems to have given up, for the time being at least, on big show trials like the Trial of the Chicago 8, as it was originally called and then changed to the Chicago 7 when Seale was cut loose from the other defendants.

I would have been more inclined to like a movie about the Chicago 8—it will always be the 8 for me—if Sorkin had turned it into a musical comedy, with singing and dancing, somewhat like Mel Brooks’ Springtime for Hitler. The trial was a total farce, though the chaining and gaging of Bobby Seale in the courtroom was a moral outrage and a disgrace. Seale played it to the limit and got huge mileage from it. Abbie and Jerry treated it as blatant farce. So did Dave Dellinger who spoke an obscenity in the courtroom, though The New York Times reported that he uttered “a barnyard epithet.” Now nearly everyone says “shit” and “fuck,” even the First Lady. It’s another world we live in. If Sorkin had made his movie 50 years ago it might have made a difference politically and culturally. In 2020 it seems too little and too late. Nice try Sorkin. You might go back to the West Wing and give us your recreation of Trump in the White House. That might have had some bite.

Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.

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