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Power to the People

1 Mar

As an idealistic but still naive college freshman, I signed up for a class called “The Sixties” my first semester at Brandeis. The professor, Jerry Cohen, captivated me with stories of protests and social upheaval, and explained how the youth movement tried to transform the nation. And, he told us about how Brandeis itself was a hotbed of activity, and how graduates like Abbie Hoffman were central to the activism of the decade. This course excited me like no other course would, and it started my college education on an inspiring foot.

More than 15 years later, the lessons of Jerry Cohen have come back to life with the movie Chicago 10, a documentary about the infamous trial of the Chicago Seven — folks like Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and Bobby Seale — who were put on trial for conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other charges related to violent protests that took place in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (The title comes from a quote by Rubin, who said, “Anyone who calls us the Chicago Seven is a racist. Because you’re discrediting Bobby Seale. You can call us the Chicago Eight, but really we’re the Chicago Ten, because our two lawyers went down with us.”) Director Brett Morgen mixes archival footage with computer-generated cartoons and a modern-day soundtrack to illustrate the trial and the convention week events. As historical documents go, it’s pretty cool to actually see a lot of the older footage and see how folks protested the Vietnam War. It’s also fun to see Hoffman in action; he comes across here as more of an agitator than a political activist, since he seems to delight more in getting a rise out of people than making actual change. The trial itself was a bit of a farce, since few of the defendants took the proceedings seriously. Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) was basically a crotchety old man who looked down on the defendants and made his disdain for them clear. And the fact that they all basically got off only emphasizes how silly the whole thing was.

Morgen uses the actual court transcripts as the script for the cartoon segments (with folks like Nick Nolte, Hank Azaria, and Mark Ruffalo providing the voices), and to be honest, these are some of the weaker segments in the film. The animation isn’t terribly impressive, and the back and forth with Judge Hoffman gets sort of old. On the good side, songs like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” are used to good effect to amp up the protest footage. I generally liked seeing these events I had in my head actually playing out in front of me. And it’s nice that there’s no present-day analysis from anyone, because what’s happening basically speaks for itself. But that said, the film is missing some degree of insight, and some extra degree of engagement that prevented me from being completely impressed. So I’m giving Chicago 10 a B.

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