In the 1960s, disorder in the court
Brett Morgen's absurdly engaging docudrama "Chicago 10" has a
mission: to jolt inert young audiences of the early 21st century into
fresh outrage and activism. The film is Grade-A agitpop, a mixture of
archival footage and cheeky, creative animated reconstruction that's
funny and frightening in equal measure. Forget the R rating; if your
kids want to know what the '60s were about, here's a start.
In August 1968, antiwar protesters and disaffected college kids
descended on Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, intent
on bringing their message to middle America via the news media.
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley sent in the riot squad; four days of
street battles followed.
Eight months later, Nixon's new attorney general, John Mitchell, put
the activists he considered responsible on trial in a Chicago federal
courtroom, charging them with conspiracy and crossing state lines
with intent to incite riot.
Morgen stitches together historical footage without resorting to
narration or talking heads. Because no cameras were allowed at the
trial itself, "Chicago 10" animates the court transcripts using voice
actors and the semi-photorealistic cartoon style of movies like
"Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly."
The collision between straight America and the counterculture has
never seemed more surreal. The conflict is personified in the
showdown between Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright) and Judge Julius
Hoffman, whose querulous voice is provided by the late Roy Scheider.
Seale wanted to represent himself, Hoffman refused, Seale made an
angry stand for his constitutional rights - and Hoffman had the
defendant tied to a chair, silenced with a gag, and knocked around by bailiffs.
It was at that moment the government lost its case, and "Chicago 10"
gives us the stark visual correlative: a black man bound to a chair
in an American courtroom, beaten for trying to speak his piece.
The defendants are seen as heroes not because of what they did but
where they drew the line, saying: If you cross here, you're no longer
fighting for freedom but against it. "Chicago 10" implicitly prompts
a viewer to wonder where his or her own line is. Better yet, it makes
you question what, if anything, you're doing about it.