It seems that my final two films also have a theme – they both deal with the 1960s counterculture, and the events referenced briefly in one are the entire content of the other.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7
In any of my reviews, I try to own up if I have a particular background or perspective which I suspect might influence my opinion of a film. Now, you wouldn’t think this film – an Aaron Sorkin legal drama about the trial of the seven men accused of conspiring to promote a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention would have any particular resonance with me.
In early 1968, just where the film begins, my parents were newlyweds. The film opens with a montage of the government amping up the draft and young men receiving their draft notices; my father worked at a shipyard in Connecticut designing subs for the military, which exempted him from the draft. Midway through this montage there is a clip of Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign; my father worked for the Kennedy campaign, and RFK’s assassination soured my father on political activism for years afterward. Shortly after Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, right about the time when John Mitchell charges his lawyers with prosecuting the Chicago 7 on the film, the draft laws changed and my father was no longer exempt and was entered into the draft pool. He actually had his number called up a few months later and even received an appointment for his physical – but then my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, and my father was released from the draft. This film ends on February 20th, 1970, on the date when Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) made a statement at the Chicago 7’s sentencing hearing; just a few days after that, I was born.
So for the entire action of this film, I kept thinking about how just off camera, while all this was going on, my parents were going to doctors’ visits, preparing a nursery, having a baby shower, and bracing themselves for parenthood, and I was waiting to make my entrance into the world. Hayden’s statement during their sentencing was simply to read a list of all of the servicemen who had died in Vietnam during the course of this trial, and all I could think was that these names stood for 5,000 couples who were never going to get the chance to do what my parents were doing, and 5,000 children who were never going to be born.
…And then, the film ended. And….I snapped out of it.
Roommate Russ has his own quip akin to my “Oskar Flatpack” one: “Sorkin’s gonna Sorkin.” Aaron Sorkin has by now cornered the market on idealistic depictions of government, and of quixotic courtroom dramas; they’ve often got enjoyably quippy dialogue and attention-getting dramatic moments, but they can also be very polemic. There are several scenes where Abbie Hoffman (remarkably well played by Sacha Baron Cohen) locks horns with co-defendant Tom Hayden; they’re from two very different progressive organizations and have two very different approaches to activism, with each frequently accusing the other of endangering the cause. So of course Sorkin includes a scene towards the end where they make peace, and Hoffman admits to admiration of Hayden’s passion and dedication. And of course there’s a scene where the buttoned-up prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) starts to feel some compassion for the defendants, even as he is prosecuting them.
It’s good that the events of this film be told. It’s a story of a definite moment of overreach on the part of our government. However, I question whether Aaron Sorkin should have been the one to tell it.
Judas And The Black Messiah
Judas And the Black Messiah, ironically, offers a very good argument in favor of who could have told the story of the Chicago 7 Trial instead. However, it’s better that they told this story instead; the story of the government’s assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers. Fred Hampton appears very briefly as a character in Trial of the Chicago 7, in fact, and his assassination is addressed; but with none of the weight and sensitivity this film brings to the events.
Ironically, the plot sounds almost trite itself. Bill O’Neill (LaKeith Stanfield) is a thief who makes his scores by posing as an FBI agent and “confiscating” his targets’ cars; when he’s caught, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) points out the FBI-impersonation business carries a much harsher penalty than theft alone. But he can drop those charges if O’Neill does something for him – infiltrate the Black Panthers and turn FBI informant, reporting on the actions of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neill starts out indifferent to the Panthers’ cause, but over time comes to admire Hampton – and becomes profoundly conflicted about his assignment.
Kaluuya and Stanield are just as good – if not better – than the cast of Chicago 7. And for certain, the script is much better – there’s more nuance, more intimacy. There’s a heartbreaking sub-plot involving Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a poet turned activist; in one scene, when she is pregnant with the couple’s child she shares a poem with Hampton when he asks her whether her pregnancy gives her concerns about his activism. She manages to convey both support for the cause while simultaneously arguing against dying for it.
For the Black Panthers were not just the terrorist organization the government made them out to be. Most of Hampton’s activism in the film involves free meals for schoolkids, a free medical clinic for people of color, and outreach towards other groups of disenfranchised people – including one eye-popping scene where they visit a group of poor white activists in a room bedecked with a Confederate flag, and actually win them over. Hampton is O’Neill’s best hope for a life of dignity – and O’Neill has been sent to betray him.
I won’t divulge the information – but the title cards at the end, detailing how everyone else in the story fared after Hampton’s assassination, were heartbreaking.
And that’s our Best Picture roundup for 2021! We’ll be watching the ceremony tonight, and I may try liveblogging it – I may have better technical equipment on hand than I did last year. Fingers crossed.