[29 February 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You trying to make jive bargaining operations and that’s different from the right I have. I have a right to defend myself. I still have a right to defend myself whether you sit me down or not.
—Bobby Seale, 1968
With poetry, my mind I flex.
Flip like Wilson, vocals never lackin’ dat finesse.
Whadda I got to, whadda I got to do to wake you up,
To shake you up, to break the structure up.
—Rage Against the Machine, “Wake Up”
You can’t make this stuff up: Bobby Seale, bound and gagged—chained, actually—in a Chicago courtroom. It sounds like fiction, a revolutionary’s canny prediction or worst nightmare. But there it is, a recorded fact of U.S. history. And here it is, again, in big, brightly colored animation, in Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10.
Beginning with its title, which adds defendants to the case—which is usually remembered as the Chicago 7 or the Chicago 8, depending on whether you include the future author of Barbeque’n with Bobby Seale, effectively silenced by Judge Julius Hoffman—the film appears open to the charges that have been made against it. A slippery, sensational take on the past, the movie is premised on its own sort of charge, that history is always subjective and a matter of limited view, that its status as fact and fixed narrative is overstated. The film uses actors’ voices for its animated courtroom and stage show scenes (the defendants paid for their defenses via speaking engagements throughout the trial, jetting to college campuses and back to Chicago overnight), interpreting transcripts so the proceedings’ genuine nuttiness comes to cartoonish life.
Unlike more typical, more staid documentaries, Chicago 10 doesn’t spend screen time providing historical context (say, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, or Hubert Humphrey’s existence). Instead, it illustrates a concept—history as performance, both conscious and not. Given its focus, the extremely self-aware actions of the Chicago convention protestors and the subsequent showboating by judge, defendants, and attorneys 13 months later, the concept makes sense. Complaints against the film also note its New Leftish bias and simplification of complex theatrics, deeming it “an affirmation of received thinking rather than a challenge to it.”
There’s another, not necessarily definitive, way to think about the movie’s performance of history, which is to say, it presents the performance as a problem. Rather than taking the pronouncements of either Judge Hoffman (voiced by Roy Scheider) or Seale (voiced by Jeffrey Wright and also appearing in archival footage) as only truth, the film questions the process by which truth is determined.
Unlike a typical documentary and quite like Morgen’s previous film, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10 thinks through the circuitous routes by which the past is fixed (in multiple senses), recorded, remembered, and eventually asserted. It’s helpful, of course, to have footage and images, appearing to tell whole stories accurately even as they cannot possibly. When the demonstrators in Chicago ‘68 shouted “The whole world is watching” for TV cameras, they named the moment “public,” a collective memory in the making. The declaration was also a warning to the cops battering protestors’ heads that their bad behavior was becoming history.
The movie includes scenes of the “planning” for this spectacle, as members of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) propose to “put forth the kinds of values to create a society in which a Vietnam war wouldn’t even be possible.” As the camera reveals an apartment chucky full of stock images of the counterculture circa 1968—reefer, sex, a framed portrait of Che—the incipient media stars decide they need to come up with a name for their performance troupe. “What rhymes with hippie?” they wonder, as “Yippie!” appears in bubbly animated brilliance over Paul Krassner‘s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) head.
Even as MOBE leader Rennie Davis (James Urbaniak) asserts their desire to show the world “there are thousands of young people in this country who do not want to see a rigged convention rubber-stamp another four years of Lyndon Johnson’s war,” the Yippies prepare for a “Festival of Life,” featuring music, performance, and what Hoffman called a “fuck-in.” As he describes it for a TV interview (conducted as he and the journalist walk through a Chicago park), “I mean, it’s all conceived as a total theater with everyone becoming an actor.” When their application for a license to assemble in Chicago is pretty much inevitably put off by Mayor Daley’s nervous staffers, the city added 7,500 Army troops and 6,000 National Guardsmen to the 12,000 police officers who were put on 12-hour shifts. As Walter Cronkite pus it, “The Democratic Convention is about to begin, in a police state, there just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.” The protestors anticipate a very showy showdown, and get it.
The trial is something else again, here used as an introduction to harrowing footage of the riots on Wednesday, August 28. As the film indicates, defendant Abbie Hoffman (Hank Azaria) understood early on the theatrical dimensions of the charges against MOBE members and Yippies (Youth International Party), that they had “incited a riot.” “It’s a state of mind trial,” says the “real” Hoffman during a TV interview, “I mean, we’re being tried for our thoughts.” His fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin calls the Chicago demonstrations “like the Academy Award protests,” for which the trial is a kind of public certification and acclamation. In the courtroom, they gesticulate, speak out of turn, and generally cause a ruckus, infuriating Judge Hoffman and inspiring a slew of attendant charges.
Defense attorney William Kunstler (Liev Schreiber) adopts his own theatrics, arguing, “This was not a riot caused by demonstrators, but a riot engineered by the police of this city.” (Kunstler and the other defense counsel, Leonard Weinglass, were convicted of “criminal contempt” by the end of the trial, thus becoming the extra two of this film’s title; like the convictions of their clients, theirs were reversed on appeal.) The prosecution is as ostentatious as the defense, as Thomas Foran (Nick Nolte) declares, “These people made unreasonable demands on the city of Chicago” (one plot alleged in court, though not mentioned here, had the Yippies conspiring to put LSD in the Chicago water supply.) The film here presents competing “histories,” as a police officer swears she heard Hoffman urge protestors to “bring a lot of weapons” in order to “take [Lincoln] Park,” while Hoffman recalls saying, “If the cops want the Park we’ll give ‘em the Park. Who gives a shit?” Cartoon flashbacks show hundreds of police in gas masks chasing demonstrators over the grass.
Such different versions of “what happened” are thematic in Chicago 10. The unstable nature of the past and the many uses of diverse recollections are precisely its project. The cartoon Rubin (Mark Ruffalo) notes during a stage appearance—college lecture as standup comedy—the addition of Seale to the defendants was a stroke of perverse genius: “Bobby was only in Chicago a couple hours,” Rubin says, “But the government believes in integration, equality, so if it indicts seven, it’s got to add on a black person to make eight. And what could be better than the national chairman of the Black Panther Party. Beautiful.” Such overt, official illogic reinforces Chicago 10‘s recurrent links between then and now. Soundtrack music choice make a plain appeal to at least some viewers currently termed “youth” (though it’s arguable that Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Eminem’s “Mosh,” while potent anti-war songs, are both dated in their own ways). More effective in making a claim to urgency is the film’s representation of protestors’ abuse by the police and then by the legal system.
It’s alarming and not a little infuriating to see cops beating on demonstrators during the film’s climactic sequence of riot images. As performers like Peter, Paul & Mary try to calm the crowd, the film lurches into footage of brutal assaults with batons, dazed and bloody faces. As these are lined up alongside the animated Seale asserting, “I want to speak on behalf of my constitutional rights, you can’t deny me my constitutional rights,” when Judge Hoffman consents for a moment to have his gag removed, it’s hard not to think of the many other protestors, detainees, and U.S. citizens whose rights are being stifled as we speak.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/chicago-10/