Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Chicago 10

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | March 04, 2008 7:33 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: Allen Ginsberg, bobby seale, Chicago, counterculture, direct action group, police brutality, rage against the machine, richard daley, Vietnam War

I wasn't expecting to like Chicago 10 so much -- I thought it would be cheesy and overwrought, but the best part was the actual footage of the famous protests at the 1968 Democratic convention. The protests felt so messy and unprofessional and confrontational, not very different from some of the more dramatic protests today with all the police violence and people running in all different directions and breaking with the plans. And terrible cheesy moments like when Allen Ginsberg gets the whole crowd to say OM while the police are blocking them from heading towards the convention. The director collapsed footage of protests at the convention with protests at the trial of the people who started out as the Chicago 8 but then became the Chicago 7 when Bobby Seale was removed from the case for contempt of court, but I like the gesture of calling the movie the Chicago 10 because the lawyers for the group ended up doing jail time as well.

I love actual footage from protests, especially anything from the '60s or '70s -- it's great to notice details like the fact that everyone still looks kind of preppy, messy and shaggy but in khakis and button-downs and even suits for a lot of people. I guess this is before most counterculture types looked like freaks, or when it took a lot less to look like a freak, the Yippies are the closest - they're burnt-out hippie messes but they're also fearless and hilarious and politicized -- we don't really have that intersection between partying counterculture and politicized activism anymore, at least not on that level. During their trial in 1969, they would go to court from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., then fly individually across the country to speak to crowds of 20,000 people at universities -- they were total stars, adored for their absurd, confrontational shenanigans like showing up to court in judicial robes, and when the judge asked them to take the robes off, beneath they're wearing police uniforms.

Watching the footage from the protests is the first time I really feel what people are always saying about how the antiwar movement is larger and more organized now -- these protests are so famous, and sure they're especially famous because of the police brutality captured live on television -- blood dripping down people's faces and cops hitting and hitting -- but it actually feels encouraging to see how slapdash everything is and how absurdity is wielded just as much as any logic.

The director doesn't interview anyone, which is an interesting choice for a documentary -- there are original interviews from 1968 and 1969, but then the trial is reproduced in an animated sequence layered into the actual footage at first this is kind of distancing but then it becomes an intimate part of the experience. Like when Bobby Seale, head of the Black Panther Party, is famously gagged and shackled during the trial, I think it might actually be more intense to see the animation and the actual dialogue as to hear him speak about it now.

It's a bit strange and disorienting to see black-and-white and color footage at the same time as the animation and recent music like Rage Against the Machine, each piece wrapping around the other and we're not given any timeline. In a way this dispenses with realism and makes us question the way historical events are represented. The messiness of the protesters isn't necessarily packaged, which allows us to critique them but it doesn't tell us much about their privilege or directly question an obviously masculinist, heterosexist agenda or talk about race and class other than the ways they're talked about by these activists in 1968 and 1969. Their satirical speeches in court are dramatic and unnerving at the same time, allowing us to question the whole mechanism, which is of course what they wanted, what they ended up doing jail time for, contempt is what the court called it but here it's actually quite inspiring.

Movies like these where everyone is getting beaten up and still moving forward always make me think about the ways in which my body doesn't allow me to do that kind of thing anymore. There was a time when chaining myself across the street felt like an obvious risk I would take, but now I don't have that type of option. But watching this movie and all the ways satire is used both successfully and unsuccessfully, the ways frantic planning gives way to delirious merrymaking wielded into protest -- it actually gives me hope for all the different ways we can try to do these things now, try and fail, and try again.

Mattilda blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com.


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I really want to see this. I'm glad it gets a thumbs up. As a history buff and activist, this is right up my alley. :)

Yes, it's definitely worth it for the footage, even if you don't like the rest!

I definitely want to see this. Thanks!

"Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago Eight" was a 1987 HBO made for television movie. I saw it back then and thought it was excellent. I wonder how it would stand up now.

Here's an article about it:
FILM ON CHICAGO 8 INCLUDES ORIGINALS
by Stephen Farber - New York Times - May 14, 1987

Thanks, Gabi -- I'll have to look out for this one as well...