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The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

Review of Chicago 10, directed by Brett Morgen

In the summer of 1968, five years into a raging Vietnam War, the Democratic National Convention attracted 10,000 protestors to the streets and parks of Chicago. The pied pipers of these mostly white, middle class students were two major antiwar groups known as MOBE and the Yippies. Six of their head organizers and the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, were arrested after the convention and charged with intending to incite a riot. Forty years later, when filmmaker Brett Morgen decided to write and direct a documentary about their infamous trial, he immediately came up against a major obstacle: due to an official camera ban, no footage of the actual proceedings existed. Countless hours had been filmed of the riots, speeches, and countercultural theatrics of the defendants, but only transcripts preserved the theatrics of the courtroom.

Morgen’s solution was to create animated reenactments using the voices of stars such as Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Nick Nolte, and Liev Schreiber. The effect plays upon Yippie leader and defendant Jerry Rubin’s characterization of the trial as a “cartoon show” while fitting with Morgen’s objective to make a movie “that resonates with kids today…in a language they understand.” The pairing of these animated scenes with vintage media coverage and contemporary rock music makes Chicago 10 a postmodern montage never before seen of feature-length documentaries. However, Morgen himself has since distanced the project from the documentary genre, claiming it was “not intended to be a historical document,” nor to “overwhelm a young audience with a bunch of names.” He simply wanted to tell a good story that could be appreciated for generations to come.

Yet it is apparent that no generation is better suited to this particular story than the one currently facing its own wartime government. The film neither stresses nor shies away from parallels between the occupations in Vietnam then and in Iraq now; but the harsh chords and harsher lyrics of modern musical renegades Rage Against the Machine, Beastie Boys, and Eminem draw the connections indirectly. Meanwhile, images of the protestors’ impromptu jam sessions and satirical skits dissolve the romantic notion that this was a generation of heroes – they were just kids, like kids today, reacting with varying degrees of eloquence and maturity to a war they perceived to be unjust and a culture they believed to be culpable.

As with any recounting of an actual event, the film is a selectively constructed adaptation that highlights some aspects while neglecting others. Following the September 30th screening at Boston Public Library, audience complaints ranged from the dearth of women activists represented to the lack of serious philosophy explained. Also not satisfactory to the crowd of mainly Baby Boomers was the negligible amount of time spent on Bobby Seale, whose trail was split off from the other defendants when he demanded to represent himself legally. With the Women’s Lib and Civil Rights movements roaring in ’68, it makes sense that viewers were curious to see more about them, but on the whole they agreed the narrow focus was a necessary limitation and that the movie was still an enlightening throwback.

Just as Chicago 10 condenses history into a manageable snapshot, so the characters are reduced into caricatures – sometimes, as with the nasal and unfailingly condescending Judge Julius Hoffman, at the expense of impartial storytelling. But then, G.I Joe-caliber animation isn’t exactly the medium of nuanced performances, and Morgen never did claim to be impartial. Rather, he embraces the rock star mystique that originally made Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, Bobby Seale, and their two lawyers – AKA, the Chicago 10 – into cultural martyrs. And it seems the public agrees with his sentiments – after positive reaction from crowds and critics alike, Morgen has committed to spinning this story into a trilogy.

Chicago 10 will premiere Sunday, October 19th at 9pm on WGBH 44 and Wednesday, October 22nd at 9pm on WGBH 2.