What Happened in the ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’? Learn the Story Behind the Netflix Movie

Chicago Seven Protests
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After 14 years in development, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is finally seeing the light of day. And unfortunately, the Netflix film, streaming October 16, couldn’t be timelier, since the issue of police brutality is still a major topic of discussion in 2020.

According to History.com, the Chicago Seven were the young leftists—Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Bobby Seale, Lee Weiner, John Froines and David Dellinger—who were tried in 1969 for conspiring to incite a riot at the prior year’s Democratic National Convention. The Chicago Seven were originally the Chicago Eight: Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, another member of the group, demanded a separate trial.

Amid widespread criticism of the Vietnam War and the ongoing Civil Rights Movement, the Chicago Eight organized protest marches and concerts in Chicago, but violent clashes broke out between the 10,000 protestors and 23,000 police and National Guard troops, as CBS News reports. And because of all the reporters in town to cover the convention, those clashes received national attention.

The ensuing four-month trial was also a major press event, especially because defense attorney William Kunstler encouraged his clients to disrupt the proceedings—by reciting poetry, for example, or chanting the Hare Kirshna, according to History.com. Defendants Hoffman and Rubin even showed up to court costumed in judge’s robes.

Even more shocking: Judge Julius Hoffman had Seale chained and gagged in the courtroom after Seale demanded a lawyer of his choice, per The Chicago Tribune. Hoffman’s actions inspired Kunstler to call his court a “torture chamber.”

“[Seale] would try to pull his hands up,” Davis recalled to CBS News. “And then he would just be clubbed in front of the jury. And this went on for several days.” (Seale’s case was eventually declared a mistrial.)

The other defendants, meanwhile, tried to shine the spotlight on racism in America. “Whatever happens to us, however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the black people in this country, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail,” Dellinger said in court.

Judge Hoffman ended up holding the defendants in contempt of court and sentencing them to up to 29 months in prison, and five of the defendants were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot—which had been outlawed by a Republican-led add-on to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The convictions and the contempt charges were, however, overturned on appeal in 1970, History.com reports.

Now the story is hitting screen with the Netflix film The Trial of the Chicago 7, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among other big names.

For Sorkin, the writer and director of the film, Chicago 7 became a pressing project when Trump campaigned for the Oval Office in 2016. “It began when he was running for president, and at his rallies, when a protester would shout out something, he’d become nostalgic about ‘the old days’ when they’d beat the crap out of them and punch them in the face,” Sorkin told CBS News. “And the ‘old days’ he was talking about was ’68.”

The film has even more relevance in 2020, with Black Lives Matter protestors clashing with police departments already embroiled in scandal following incidents of police brutality. “We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did, in Kenosha and Kentucky and Washington, when you see once again peaceful protesters being met with tear gas, night sticks,” Sorkin added. “You know, you gotta care a lot about this country to go out in the street and face that kind of danger. You gotta care a lot about America.”

The Trial of the Chicago 7, Premiere, Friday, October 16, Netflix