Michael Carlson
19 min readOct 28, 2020

In Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7, just after Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, the eighth of the trial’s seven, is returned to the courtroom bound and gagged, Rennie Davis, the main organiser of the demonstrations in Chicago around the 1968 Democratic party’s convention, realises he and his fellow defendants ought to remain seated when Judge Julius Hoffman returns to the courtroom and the bailiff says “all rise”.

In Sorkin’s version Davis, as played by Alex Sharp, puts his pen in his mouth, twists his lips and sticks his tongue out and writes a note, “don’t stand up” like a kindergarten student trying to remember the shape of every letter and keep them within the paper’s lines. It gets passed around just as one might in a classroom, even though the teacher (in this case Judge Julius Hoffman) is out of the room. At this point in his life, Davis was 28 years old, had been a leader of Students For A Democratic Society (SDS), and was a major figure in protest against the Vietnam war. He’s been transformed into a geeky teenager, before the trial most afraid his girlfriend’s parents will find out about his radical activities.

Look at the photographs. If this movie had been made in the 1970s, Peter Fonda would have turned in his motorcycle shades for hornrims and played Rennie Davis. Davis’ appearance isn’t the most crucial of Sorkin’s changes, and it’s important to say none of them depart seriously from the historical record; Davis himself praised the film while lamenting his own transformation. But it is important to understand why what has changed is different. It’s not just the idea that if you weren’t ‘there’, you weren’t there, and Sorkin, who was seven at the time of the Chicago Riots, wasn’t there. Those of us who remember the events and the people involved clearly (and yes, I know the old canard that if you can remember the Sixties then you couldn’t have been there) are clearly not the audience at whom the film is aimed; if it were aimed at us it would likely have less impact on its larger audience.

Sorkin dresses it up to comment on current politics. In the first scenes at the courthouse, protestors against the radicals on trial are holding signs that say “Lock Them Up” and “Where Are White People’s Rights?”, anachronistic but intended to signal a societal divide that…

Michael Carlson

Yank doing life w/out parole as UK broadcaster & writer. @carlsonsports. Covers arts, books, film, music, politics & uh, sports. Accept no substitutes