Sundance: Inciting a New Generation

The federal trial of the Chicago Eight/Seven for conspiring to riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was groundless and politically motivated from the start. The defendants were a disparate bunch — “We couldn’t agree on lunch,” one of them, the Yippie Abbie Hoffman, said — and the riots were caused by a police force that refused to allow thousands of anti-Vietnam War activists to peacefully congregate and march.

The defendants — who also included Tom Hayden and Cincinnati native and Yippie Jerry Rubin — famously used the trial, as well as the stern fuddy-duddyness of presiding judge Julius Hoffman (not Abbie’s relative), both as political theater and an organizing tool by refusing to respect traditional courtroom decorum.

All this makes for a riveting, exciting stylized new documentary called Chicago 10, which was rapturously received by a Sundance Film Festival audience Saturday night. It uses animation and actors’ voices for the courtroom scenes; extensive news footage of the chaos on the streets during the convention. All to a pounding score.

Director Brett Morgan (The Kid Stays in the Picture) told the audience afterward he made the film to “bring the story to a new generation and hopefully inspire them and encourage them to raise their voice.” About Iraq, that is.

(The Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven after the judge removed one defendant, Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale, from the trial for his disruptions. Morgan’s film is called Chicago 10 in tribute to the two defense lawyers, who wound up with later-overturned contempt citations for their conduct.)

But can the trial work as an organizing tool for antiwar activists today? Is it relevant? Morgan thinks so — he’s planning on seeking classroom/community screenings and is developing a curriculum to go with the film as An Inconvenient Truth. He’s also planning to show it at a festival in Chicago.

But watching the film’s reenactments of the trial today, the outbursts of the countercultural Yippies seem very much of a tumultuous time past. I’ll bet a lot of young people who watch the film and sympathize with the defendants’ viewpoints might wonder why they “misbehaved” in court even while they laugh at Abbie Hoffman’s biting wit and humor.

— Steven Rosen

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