Power to the People: The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Judas & the Black Messiah

In a way, it seems we haven’t really left the 60s. When we constantly see news footage about law enforcement barreling against civilians for performing quiet protest, and then you see the Black Lives Matter movement, you can tell there is still a racial divide, still, a dissonance between what people want as opposed to what those in power — good or bad, elected or shadily elected — have to offer. The difference in both, however, couldn’t be clearer: the riots of the 60s sought to end racism. Black Lives Matter continues the fight and has also been seen as a fringe movement by ultra-conservatives who would still prefer to live in an America that has not existed for half a century if not more.

It’s taken me a longer than usual time to come to these two movies to review them after having seen both of them almost back-to-back. I sometimes wonder if I do have anything else to say about events that transpired before my time. I can only lend a critical eye to the chaos that the nation was embroiled in due to politics, war hounds, paranoia, and the first great wake-up call between those who had a view of a more peaceful, less racist world, and those who would rather keep it that way, the elite always beyond reach, the masses always kept under strict observance of the law, and anyone who would dare step out was deemed “an enemy of the people”.

Two narratives take place almost side-by-side, both in reaction to a war that was going nowhere, and a society steeped in racial divide. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 can’t really be reviewed by itself — well, I guess it can, but hear me out — because one of its players navigates its waters, and that player is Fred Hampton.

The Rise and Fall of Fred Hampton

Controversial in all aspects, Hampton, a Black Panther leader in the Chicago chapter, was seen as a threat by the virulently racist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and seen as a savior to his fellow African Americans (and minorities who would unite with him to fight systemic racism). His part in Judas and the Black Messiah takes center stage in the fact that Shaka King attempts to give us an observational glimpse into the life that Hampton lived, a life that at 21 was already too old and wise, and tragically cut short by the Chicago police (and Hoover’s paranoid racism).

In both movies, Hampton’s story frames the stories of others, and perhaps that is intentional. The Trial of the Chicago 7 concerns itself with the seven eight anti-war activists on trial for having participated in violent clashes with the Chicago Police at the Democratic National Convention, accused of incitement to riot and conspiracy crossing state lines. Hampton has a few key scenes in which he attempts to discredit the charges brought up to fellow Black Panther Bobby Seale. In Judas and the Black Messiah, we become privy to Hampton’s life not just through Hampton himself but through the man who infiltrated the Panthers in exchange for serving a jail sentence. That man is William “Bill” O’Neil.

It’s no secret that law enforcement agencies utilize players to infiltrate a group seen as a threat to National Security. Usually, those players happen to be of the ethnicity or religious make-up or beliefs of the group in question and can provide more information than if it were through more conventional means. O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield, finally coming into his own) plays the mostly straight role here, a man caught in the tangles of petty crime who now has to report to an FBI handler (Jesse Plemons, delivering perfectly coiffed creepy) who in turn is also reporting to the head of FBI, Hoover (Martin Sheen). His infiltration into the Black Panther Party of Chicago has the purpose of getting crucial intel meant to dismantle the threat, and thus, restore order into an already chaotic city.

The tricky part of becoming an informant is that getting in deep into any group and learning its secrets means ascending ranks within the group while pledging allegiance to its ideology. O’Neil has stated in interviews that he had no fealty to the BPP. However, throughout Judas and the Black Messiah, King suggests otherwise without overplaying his hand. O’Neil’s transformation from a simple background foot soldier gathering data for murky superiors to someone who commits the ultimate act of betrayal — not without an expression of total horror at to the depths that he has sunk — is unbelievably complex. You hate him, yet you feel sorry for him.

Hampton, through David Kaluuya’s acting, comes magnetically alive even when his deep-set eyes indicate perpetual sleepiness, a somewhat disconnect from the life that has placed him here. The movie does give Hampton ample ground to get a nuanced development without turning him into a saint, and even then, he remains a bit unknowable. His speeches are a force of nature. Compare that to scenes where he reveals himself as a deeply feeling man capable of giving a mother a moment of comfort. Scenes with Deborah Foreman (Dominique Fishback), while warm, suggest he was an intensely shy individual. There’s almost a Shakespearean quality to how his character manifests itself as he barrels forward, unaware of the betrayer standing next to him.

The Trial

While Hampton wove his way through the minefield that was Chicago, The trial against eight activists was taking place. This trial, meant to set an example to future activists, became a media circus, and Aaron Sorkin cleverly gives the movie enough of that feeling which delivers a sense of how ineffectual Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) was in handling his court, and how effective the men on trial, in particular, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, scene-stealer), were in mocking a system that was already dead in the water.

Sorkin’s movie serves as a documentary if you will about the end of an era, although even then I feel I may have said something rather dull. The story of how these disparate people came together for one mega event and somehow found themselves facing a common enemy (the establishment itself) is riveting material for many a view or a read. The fact that due to his color alone, and his association with the BPP, Bobby Seale (Yahuya Abdul Mateen II) found himself not just on trial but treated with a savagery that has to be seen to be believed. It is by far the most cringing moment in the film, and one that brings forth images of innumerable African Americans who have been treated as little more than animals by a society keen on keeping a foot firmly planted on their necks. One could see that one scene as a bridge between the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and the recent upsurge of white on black violence, again, inflicted by anyone with a uniform or a badge.

Where The Trial of the Chicago 7 probably suffers is in the trial itself, and its last minutes in which Eddie Redmayne, who plays Tom Hayden, falters a bit in delivering a convincing stance. Perhaps I’m nitpicking. It just seemed a bit too pat if you will, a move meant to seal the trial on its deserved high note. Other than that this is a terrific picture, rife with razor-sharp dialogue (again, a Sorkin trademark), and memorable turns by its entire cast which let’s face it, is rather large.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix. Judas and the Black Messiah played for a month on HBOMAX but is still in theaters until it moves back to virtual platforms. Of the two, I would favor the latter in the sheer complexity of its two lead characters, men caught in a web of power and racial paranoia much greater than they could ever anticipate.

The Trial of the Chicago 7: B+ Judas and the Black Messiah: A

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