Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Chicago 10 Review

It's not exactly related to academic freedom, but here's my review of the new Chicago 10 movie:

A riot happened. That’s the only one thing everyone agree about in Brett Morgen’s new documentary about the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Chicago 7 trial that followed. Whether it was a police riot or a conspiracy of left-wing activists to cause a riot is the issue at question in the trial. The documentary by Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) comes down solidly on the side of the activists as persecuted for their ideas, and that’s because the bulk of the evidence substantiates this view.

Morgen’s documentary offers a mix of fascinating footage from the 1968 Convention along with animation depicting the never-filmed scenes within the courtroom. It’s an approach that works far better than a traditional re-enactment because the jumpy animation seems so much in tune with the strangeness of the times, when war raged in Vietnam and activists were desperate to stop it.

We watch Bobby Seale declaring his right to serve as his own attorney, and see the horror of him being gagged and shackled in court. Abbie Hoffman is the star of the show, of course, as he declares, “we’re being tried for our thoughts,” blows a kiss at the jury, and dresses up in a judge’s robe. Hoffman’s evening phone calls to WBAI in New York during the trial are a highlight of the movie, as we hear his analysis and can see the animation. Hoffman dismisses the idea of a conspiracy to riot: “we couldn’t find our way out of the park.” Hoffman is featured alone in the movie poster, wearing an American flag gag. As Tom Hayden noted in a discussion following a preview in Chicago, “This trial was about the gagging of a black man. This poster is about the gagging of a white man,” which never happened.

The credibility of police undercover agents who make dubious claims that some of the Chicago 7 embraced violence is thoroughly destroyed when they state that they never saw any protesters being beaten by the cops, an assertion belied by all the footage Morgen offers of cops attacking the protesters. Morgen may be too sympathetic to the protesters, since there were minor acts of violence against the police, and not all of them were led by undercover agent provocateurs. But the true hero of the time is David Dellinger, who promises to be “militant but peaceful” and never wavers from his commitment to both nonviolence and resistence.

Morgen calls his movie “Chicago 10 rather than the traditional Chicago 7 (or 8, including Bobby Seale) because he includes the two lawyers, Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler (who actually received the longest sentence of the group, more than four years for contempt citations). Kunstler is prominent in the trial part of the movie, arguing, “free speech died here in the streets.”

Ultimately, the term “Chicago 10 best describes the time because there were not just the eight defendants on trial in Chicago. The system was also on trial: the political system that
the judicial system that sought to put protest leaders in prison for refusing to accept repression quietly. These two defendants are the ones found guilty in Morgen’s movies.

Ironically, what saved the Chicago 10 from prison was not a popular uprising to break them out of jail, as Jerry Rubin predicted, but the judicial process. Their contempt citations were overturned on appeal. The system, for all its flaws, actually worked in the end.

There’s nothing particularly new or original about Morgen’s approach to this material, but Morgen is trying to bring a slice of history to a new generation of viewers. He uses current music at times rather than the traditional Sixties soundtrack, to make it seem more relevant. It’s a tactic that works for some scenes over footage of the protests, but it fails in the opening sequence, when bad sound mixing causes the music to obscure the words.

The 1968 Convention and the trial that followed remain a touchstone for those who lived through the time. NPR’s Scott Simon, who moderated a discussion after a preview in Chicago of the film, noted that he was one of the Chicago kids protesting in the crowd. But Simon also had a Chicago police officer in his family: “I knew my grandfather, and whatever arguments we had, I knew he was a decent man.” The police riot in Chicago, much like the torture by the US, was the product of choices by our leaders.

Tom Hayden observed about Morgen’s documentary, “The film captures the spirit of a time.” Hayden noted, “I walk around Chicago, and every park and every building has a memory to me” from the experience of the protest and the trial.

But the movie is also a reminder of how our politics has changed. As Hayden noted, “If you think it’s bad now, consider ‘68.” The Democrats had started the Vietnam War, and Democrats and Republicans united to support it. As Hayden put it, “we didn’t have anyone to turn to.” In 2008, the situation is very different, with Barack Obama campaigning against the war. This year, as happened 40 years ago, protestors are planning to assemble in Minneapolis at the national convention of the party in power to oppose an unpopular war. According to Hayden, “the anti-war factor in the election will be decisive.” But this year, the real protest will happen in polling places across the country in November, not in the streets.

“Chicago 10 (takepart.com/chicago10) opened Feb. 29.
John K. Wilson is the author of “Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies” (collegefreedom.org) and “Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest” (obamapolitics.com).

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