Oedipal Riot

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 includes glimpses of the real, drained of ideological significance.

Jewish Currents and Friends
November 3, 2020
The Trial of the Chicago 7. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s new movie about the 1969 show trial of SDS, Yippie, and Black Panther leaders following the riots at the Democratic National Convention the previous year, offers a fantasy about the democratic process in which protesters and prosecutors just need to learn to get along. Jewish Currents staff, along with guest stars Hannah Black, Isaac Brosilow, and Tobi Haslett, discussed the film a few days before the election, as the country prepared to put its own fantasy about democratic process to the test. This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Ari Brostoff: So we’ve all learned that Aaron Sorkin did not know who the Chicago Seven were until Steven Spielberg invited him over for lunch in 2006 and suggested he make a movie about them. Sorkin—who is now 59 years old—said in a recent interview that he had to go call his dad and ask. We’ve all seen our fair share of self-aggrandizing boomer cinema, but this doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill. Why does this movie exist if Aaron Sorkin actually didn’t care about the subject matter? What does that mean?

Hannah Black: I thought it was significant that Spielberg was the originator of this movie, because his reparative historical gesture is always individuation, like the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. It’s like, “I’m going to pick out the individual from the brutal way people have been massified by history,” which stops him from being able to imagine a mass politics of liberation. It’s the same reason liberals are anti-riot: The joy of a riot is that you temporarily dissolve into intersubjective desire. Spielberg really made a visual language out of the liberal preoccupation with the individual. So it’s interesting to think of him inspiring a movie about a riot.

Isaac Brosilow: I think the movie’s genius, especially given the fact that it came out this fall, is converting the fear of riots into liberal reassurance: “You don’t have to worry about all the blood or this militant rhetoric—these rioters are actually patriots. They’ll just run for Senate like Tom Hayden.” 

Tobi Haslett: Sorkin was also able to make the riot in the film seem so excessive and worth disavowing because [in his depiction of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests] it was all white people rioting—an entire crowd of outside agitators that had to be explained away through a wave of his magic wand. Whereas the only Black person who actually gets a say in the film, Bobby Seale, serves as a kind of emotional-political blackmail. We’re supposed to identify with his rage at the bratty sentimentalism of the white protesters, as if Sorkin actually has a greater sympathy with what Seale represented.

AB: The movie actually seems to have little interest in the DNC protests the defendants led the year before, which they were on trial for. The whole thing is about the trial itself.

It seems like Sorkin thinks the only way he can redeem the practice of civil disobedience is to have William Kunstler, the lawyer for the defense, explain it away forensically: A key piece of evidence for the prosecution, in the movie, is that cops hear Hayden say, “If blood is gonna flow, then let it flow all over the city.” Kunstler figures out that what Hayden actually meant was, “If our blood is going to flow, then let it flow all over the city.” He blames the whole thing on “weak possessive pronouns.” It basically becomes a crime drama where Kunstler has to get his charming but guilty defendants off the hook. 

Arielle Angel: Except that I don’t think Sorkin thinks they’re “guilty” in a moral sense, at least in his version of them. Maybe if he understood the subversiveness of what they were actually trying to do, he might think them a bit guiltier!

Jacob Plitman: The whole film is caught up in Sorkin’s confusion about who the “good guys” were. Sorkin is a kind of anti-Kafka, in that everything he’s ever made anthropomorphizes a bureaucracy, whether it’s the presidency, a newsroom, or whatever. The bureaucracy in this film is obviously the courtroom. Cops are vilified pretty directly in the film; I haven’t ever seen such a straightforward treatment of the Fred Hampton assassination. And so is the judge. But then, in between cop and judge there is the prosecutor, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose very boring performance is punctuated by dramatic pleas for due process. So since the cops are bad, and the judge is crazy, I guess we’re supposed to look to the traditional hero of the petit bourgeoisie, the middle manager.

AA: I don’t think the movie is really that hard on cops. It’s about as hard on cops as my mom, a picture-of-Hillary-Clinton-on-the-fridge-liberal, is. She’s a recently retired family court judge and now—after 25 years on the bench—she’s like, “Okay, some cops lie.” I think that Sorkin is reflecting that new liberal consensus.

TH: What genre was this film? It begins with wacky saxophone music and quick shots in between fast moving scenes. And then all of a sudden, we’re in a courtroom and there’s weirdly melodramatic violin music, and I think it’s supposed to feel . . . grave. But Abbie Hoffman sounds like Mark Wahlberg?

HB: It was a classic courtroom drama, it was like the end of A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise yells at Jack Nicholson, “Did you order the Code Red?

AA: I think maybe it’s more TV than a movie. 

HB: That’s why I liked it at first—Sorkin is actually good at writing TV. I like the slightly weird image of professionalism, where everyone is so good at their jobs or whatever. It was better than Emily in Paris, the other thing everyone was watching that week, which made me want to die. But then the movie becomes a torrent of horrors, like when Abbie Hoffman explains to Tom Hayden that he only protests because the Yippies can’t afford professional PR and marketing. 

TH: I think the racial politics of this film are exquisite. Exquisitely cynical and stupid: When Bobby Seale learns of Fred Hampton’s murder, he turns it—immediately—into a contemptuous lesson for Tom Hayden about the harsh authenticity of Black struggle, as opposed to the pathetic Oedipal hissy fits the SDS kids are supposedly throwing for the benefit of their bourgeois parents. As if Sorkin gives a shit about the Panthers’ Ten Point Program or the fight against the repressive state. The particular incoherence of the new liberal consensus is such that you can champion Black radicalism only if it takes potshots at white people you find annoying, but you never have to consider the content of Black politics in a substantive way.

AB: That’s also an old conservative line that was used all the time in the ’60s: that white participants in ’60s radical movements were just in it for narcissistic reasons of their own, and particularly Oedipal ones. The accusation Sorkin keeps having Seale deliver—that white radicals were just in it to be like, “Fuck you, Dad”—that’s what, like, Midge Decter was saying at the time. There was, for sure, some complicated truth to it. But the actual critique to make is that their solidarity was fake—not that solidarity per se is fake, which is the conservative version that Sorkin is ventriloquizing.

JP: That whole thing was hilarious coming from Aaron Sorkin, since all of The West Wing is just him being horny for the father. Bartlet descends from Olympus and fixes whatever problem anchored the episode. And so the Oedipal crisis in this film felt almost self-reflective . . .

AA: If this movie were therapy, he’d be right on the verge of a breakthrough.

IB: Inadvertently, though, Sorkin was accurately reflecting what was actually embodied by these people’s lives—not maybe at the time of the trial, but a few years after. Jerry Rubin disappeared after the trial, got really into New Age, human potential movement stuff, EST therapy, and reemerged as a Wall Street guru in the ’80s, creating the term “networking” as a marketing term. So in a funny way, there’s factual inaccuracy but ideological accuracy. This idea that these people who have militant rhetoric do ultimately just want to save the soul of the West or America or the nation state or capitalism—that’s what they literally were arguing about. Not at the time, in the ’60s, but later. 

In the ‘80s, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin staged these public debates called “Yippie versus Yuppie,” and the argument was simple for Abbie. He was saying, “I’m keeping with the spirit of the ’60s, I’m an environmentalist, I’m an activist, you’re a sellout, Jerry.” Rubin’s argument was more interesting. He said, “The spirit of the ’60s has changed. I didn’t just stay the same crusty radical, I got into wearing a suit, I got into health, I got into myself, I took the best parts of the ’60s and put it into the market, to make a more conscious version of capitalism.” And so this whole idea of, “Oh, these scary radicals actually care about patriotism, they’ll go on to redeem the systems they once reviled”—in terms of the white left, it literally did happen. 

HB: The problem, though, is Sorkin doesn’t seem to believe in contingency. Like yes, they became assholes or whatever—but it could have been different. I think you have to be more dialectical about it; history is real in that it could have been different.

AA: I think what we’re coming to is that on some level this movie is actually true and real—now. Like it’s not true of what happened then, but it is true of the way that some of these people who were there are processing these events in the present. I don’t think Sorkin is fully aware of this, of course, he’s just reproducing it. I mean, Isaac, you’ve been sending us screenshots from the SDS Facebook group, and a lot of them love the movie.

TH: Of the revolutionaries on trial, the only one who actually had a proper and lifelong claim to Marxism is Bobby Seale, who’s out in the first third of the film. He’s removed from the scene through the deus ex machina of race—and from there on out the film becomes a morality play that casts anarchism as somehow liberal and liberalism as anarchistic. In the end, the white rioters love the US of A, and the feeling is mutual. What you never get is a synthetic understanding of how the different ideologies clash and overlap.

HB: Before I saw the movie, I hadn’t known that Seale was bound and gagged in the courtroom. The film transmits the reality of race with that moment, in a weird way. I think Sorkin has kind of understood the Black Lives Matter practice of hearing and transmitting the voices of the dead or injured. It’s not always the exact moment someone dies that the protest happens, it’s often at the moment that their last words are made public, and the dead are able to speak to us directly. Or else a specific brutality becomes an image and is made available for political use because the horror of history is visible through it. I don’t want to give Sorkin too much credit, but that moment in the movie had a really vivid intensity. 

TH: I do think that that is one of the few moments in the film that somehow escapes the obscenity of the staging. There’s no amount of editing or scripting you can do to dampen the intensity of that scene. You could make the worst film ever—perhaps you have in fact made the worst film ever—and I would still be moved. It’s like how I was trembling with grief at the end of Ava DuVernay’s Selma and—as tears were streaming down my face and pooling at my ankles—I said, [crying] “That was a terrible movie.”

JP: I think that’s part of the shell game that’s played in the film. Like, you get these glimpses and fragments of things that are real. I was fucked up by the archival picture of the cops grinning after they shot Fred Hampton. But the disjointedness of these images leaves you, ultimately, with nothing.

AB: It seems like part of what we’re saying is that to some extent these moments—the archival image of Hampton’s killers, or the gagging scene—are intrusions of the real into this contrived movie. But anything that doesn’t make it into the frame of the courtroom drama—most glaringly, the Vietnam War—seems not to actually be real in the world of the movie. The courtroom erupts in this shocking display of unity at the end when Tom Hayden reads a list of American soldiers killed in the war. But the antiwar movement—at least for radicals at the center of it, like the Chicago Seven defendants—wasn’t just about saving our boys in uniform, it was also about stopping an imperialist war. They were very straightforward about that—it was not, like, a third rail for them. Sorkin doesn’t seem to understand that.

AA: I’m actually disturbed by the movie’s inaccuracy in that way—it’s really messed up to do that to people’s legacies. David Dellinger was a fucking pacifist, and Sorkin has him punching people. It’s almost like Sorkin doesn’t believe that someone might have political principles that guide their life. He thinks about it only at the most superficial level of pop psychology—that Dellinger is showing his humanity if he punches someone, but not if he refuses to fight in World War II on the basis of pacifism.

TH: One of the things that perturbed me about the discourse that seemed to froth atop the riots this summer was the way people were bandying about the term “nonviolence,” as if it were simply the absence of violence. It’s insane to me that people have forgotten that nonviolence was a positive practice. You had to go to trainings, you had to discipline your body, you had to learn how to take a punch. It’s not “being nice to cops.” Principled nonviolence is a form of complete spiritual and corporeal devotion that’s actually just as athletically active as a riot, and the whole point is confrontation. MLK said, “We wanted to create a crisis-packed situation, which would open the door to negotiation.” 

AA: And that’s why Dellinger has to punch someone—he has to defuse the power of nonviolence. All political ideas in the film are defused in similar ways. 

IB: There’s something really perverted about the Chicago Seven trial getting adapted right now, considering the current repression of the activist left. Prosecutors failed to convict the Chicago Seven on conspiracy, but they would have succeeded ten years later, after the RICO Act, which expanded who could be tried under conspiracy charges. This immediately started to impact leftists, such as members of the May 19th communist organization and the Black Liberation Army. That’s why David Gilbert is still in jail for driving a getaway truck 50 years ago—conspiracy charges allowed him to be prosecuted for murder, despite never shooting a gun. Josh Williams is still in jail from the Ferguson uprisings—he was served an eight-year sentence for allegedly lighting a trash can on fire. I think it’s incredibly important that the Chicago Seven trial is understood as a spectacle that overshadows and deflects from many other trials, which do not become a public spectacle or are buried in movement history. Nothing even goes to trial now. People are being held just by a grand jury on conspiracy charges for years in this country.

TH: That’s a lesson they learned from the ’60s and ’70s. There are parts of Assata Shakur’s autobiography in which she describes her trial and you think, if I held the reins to the repressive state apparatus, I would never want that to happen again: All of the Black Muslims laying up their prayer rugs in the hallway and little Black children blurting, “Is that the fascist pig?” while pointing at the judge. Everyone in the courtroom bursting into laughter. 

AA: Okay, we have to talk about Jews now because we’re Jewish Currents. I mean, Jerry Rubin called the trial a “Jewish morality play.”

IB: Everyone in the trial was Jewish: Julius Hoffman, the judge, and Richard Schultz on the prosecution side, and William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass on the defense. And three of the defendants: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner. The prosecution followed a formula for the trial that actually originated with the Rosenberg trial, where there was a Jewish judge and a Jewish prosecutor, and Kunstler on the defense team again, because they were like, “We don’t want this to seem antisemitic.” 

The Rosenberg trial was a show trial that traumatized Jewish America. And Julius Hoffman became a judge like a month before that trial. He never says anything about it specifically that I could find, but you have to think that it would have affected him. And he did talk about being a Jewish judge. He basically said, “If I’m a good judge, if I’m learned in the law, then that is a good antidote to antisemitism.” 

Then you have Kunstler who’s a legal phenom, who basically gets radicalized by the Rosenberg trial. And then you have Abbie and Jerry who were like, “Fuck you, Dad, we’ve got a guy from your generation, Kunstler, to represent us.” That’s where the stage is set.

AA: There is also Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s anti-assimilationist trolling of the judge. The judge seemed particularly uncomfortable with public expressions of Jewishness; I read he made Arthur Waskow, of Freedom Seder fame, take his yarmulke off on the stand. And also that Abbie Hoffman realized that a good way to rankle the judge was to yell at him in Yiddish. At one point, he called him a “shonde far di goyim.” 

JP: It strikes the ear as if you called your lawyer by a pet name. There’s a strange intimacy. To speak Yiddish at the judge is to call him “dad.” 

AB: It’s breaking the fourth wall and saying, actually, even though we are doing this show trial for the state, this is really about intra-Jewish conflict.

AA: It reminds me of something Alisa Solomon wrote about the play The Inheritance. She was talking about the figure of the Jew in postwar theater, this universal figure that white audiences could project onto and identify with. That figure can have many faces. There’s something interesting about the trial in that regard—the way everyone’s on all sides but they’re basically all Jews.

IB: Right. But also all uncontroversially white in their own self-conception and in the political circles they belong to. And at the same time, there’s this racial element within the Jewish world of how Abbie and Julius Hoffman are interacting with each other. When Abbie says, on the record, “In reality, my family’s name is Shaposhnikov, not Hoffman”—Hoffman is a German Jewish name that his, like, grandfather took to sound higher class amongst Jews, not among white people. In a sense, Abbie was playing the part of the Eastern European Jewish radical, inflaming the sensibility of the assimilationist Jewish elite, represented by Judge Hoffman. The raw material is there, but Sorkin doesn’t know what to do with it.

AA: Spielberg might have done more with that if he had made the movie. It might have been unbearable, but it probably would have been present.

AB: That’s the true Oedipal narrative inside the concocted one: Sorkin versus Spielberg, younger boomer versus older boomer. It’s the difference between the hyper-saturation of everything that happened in the ’60s, where the good white liberals are always the saviors, versus the bada-bing-bada-boom flat-affect feel of Sorkin’s movie. Sorkin has basically absorbed all of the ideological conclusions of the Spielberg generation, but has forgotten all of the plot points that got them there. It all still comes to what ultimately would have been Spielberg’s conclusion as well, which is that institutions will save us. But there’s no grandeur along the way.

Arielle Angel, Ari Brostoff, and Jacob Plitman are staff members at Jewish Currents.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer. She lives in New York.

Isaac Brosilow is a contributing writer for Jewish Currents.

Tobi Haslett is a writer living in New York.