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A Great Film but Strangely Washed of Jewishness

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Jack Shamash reviews the new release The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Last Friday, the film The Trial of The Chicago 7 was released in cinemas and on Netflix. It depicts the Chicago Conspiracy Trial that began in 1969 and ended in 1970. It stars, among others, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman.

A Jewish Affair

Hoffman once described the trial as very much a Jewish event (mirroring the Rosenberg trial from the previous decade), but the film notably omits much of the Jewish background, which was so important in the trial.

To cut a long story short, various groups of radicals, including many prominent Jews such as Hoffman and Rubin but also author Norman Mailer, poet Allen Ginsburg, and sociologist Lee Weiner came to Chicago at the time of the 1968 Democratic convention to campaign against the Vietnam War. The protestors were attacked by police, there was bloodshed on the streets and some of the leading figures were charged and tried with conspiracy to incite riot.

The trial was important for several reasons. The film rightly shows that the federal government was keen to shut down any of the 1960s countercultural protest. So, there was a stand-off between the authorities and the protestors, who were threatening the established order.

But there was also a racial component to the events in Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley ran a very powerful party machine, which dominated the city. If you wanted a job in city government, you were more or less forced to support Daley. Daley was the champion of the Irish Catholic community and even continued to live in a working-class Irish neighbourhood, albeit in the grandest house in the area. The police force was almost entirely Irish Catholic, and they were given free rein by the city authorities. As a side issue, Daley was regarded as a somebody with huge power on the national stage. President Nixon was convinced that voter fraud by Daley had cost him the 1960 presidential election.

Daley – a Democrat – had intended that the convention would show his authority. But the protestors threatened this. And so, the police moved very forcibly to remove the hippies. The savagery of the police was so appalling that convention delegates were interrupting their speeches to complain about police brutality. And the situation wasn’t helped when tear gas started drifting into the convention centre and affecting the delegates. None of the events in the convention hall were shown in this latest film.

There was also tension within the protest movement. Hayden, portrayed with wonderful sincerity by Eddie Redmayne, wanted to take the proceedings seriously. Hoffman, played with jocular anger by Baron-Cohen, wanted to use the trial to mock the institutions of American justice.

Whitewashed

As I say, strangely — given that the movie’s director, Aaron Sorkin, is Jewish — the film omitted a great deal of the Jewish content. Many of the trial’s leading figures were Jewish. In addition to Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, this included the defence lawyer William Moses Kunstler (played by Mark Rylance), as well as one of the prosecution lawyers, Richard Schultz (portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

During the trial, Abbie Hoffman announced that he wanted to change his name for the hearing because he said he was ashamed to have the same name as the judge – Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) – who was also Jewish. Hoffman’s followers took great pains to attack the judge and his family in Yiddish referring to him as a ‘Shande for the Goyim’ – a shameful representative of the non-Jews. As I recall, Mayor Richard Daley was also called to give evidence. He was asked whether he had abused a delegate at the democratic convention, responding with the words ‘Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.’

The film rather glossed over the attempts by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to turn the trial into theatre. At one point, Country Joe McDonald was asked to sing the words of his most famous song ‘What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me and I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam’. Also omitted is the evidence of the poet Allen Ginsburg (who does appear in the film), author of Howl and Kaddish, who started chanting ‘om’ in court.

There have been a couple of previous efforts to make a film about the events in Chicago[NA1] . The Great Chicago Conspiracy Circus, director Kerry Feltham in, 2008; Conspiracy: the Trial of the Chicago 8, which featured cameos by Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, directed by Jeremy Kagan in 1987; and Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace, an animated documentary starring Nick Nolte, by director Brett Morgen in 2007.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is probably the best of them.

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Jack Shamash is a Journalist, crime writer, philatelist, father of two and rabbit owner.
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