Chicago 10, a documentary about the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and subsequent jury trial of eight protester defendants, is a bracing combination of archival footage and contemporary animation. The archival sections speak for themselves — the colorful footage of groovy, loose-lipped protesters with a flair for the theatrics filling Lincoln Park is not only historic, but can be interestingly contrasted against the less colorful demonstrations of today — but the interspersed animated sequences are something unusual. Working from stranger-than-fiction transcripts of the (sadly unphotographed) courtroom proceedings, writer/director Brett Morgan has assembled an all-star cast of character actors (Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, etc.) to portray that world-class cast of characters (including Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale), animated in a rotoscoped style reminiscent of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
It’s a little jarring to move back and forth from vintage footage to a very contemporary artistic interpretation of history, but part of the point is that Chicago 10 exists in the present, not the past. The grainy images of war protesters massed in Lincoln Park, running through the streets to avoid police roadblocks, or getting cracked across the head and shoulders by cops in riot gear, are a window on the history of the peace movement, for sure, but the soundtrack is contemporary rock — Rage Against the Machine doing a reading of The MC5, Beastie Boys arriving out of nowhere with “Sabotage,” Eminem incongruously urging his fan base to vote Democrat — that means to drag useful lessons from the Yippies out of the shadow of the 60s and into the future. The high-tech animation style lends that modern gloss, and it also highlights the figurative cartoonishness of the antics inside the courtroom, as the defendants paid little respect to the judicial system and its representative, Judge Julius Hoffman, came off like The Man that any self-respecting hippie or yippie longed to stick it to.
Morgen clearly admires the ideals of the Chicago 10 — the eight defendants in the case, plus their two dedicated lawyers — and offers some evidence that the eventual violence was partly a byproduct of the Chicago authorities being kind of dickish about the whole affair. For instance, the cops insisted that the thousands and thousands of protesters clear the park every night at 11 p.m. — for what? And events only became truly chaotic after the crowd, many of them looking like ordinary, shirt-and-tied office-worker types, assembled in what looks on film like a fairly orderly column with the intent of marching to the International Amphitheatre, only to be blocked by a line of police that sent the protesters scrambling, disorganized, through the city. But Morgen also leaves room for some ambivalence about the protesters’ tactics, especially in the courtroom, where the defendants sabotaged any chance they might have had to be taken seriously by letting fly with paper airplanes, interacting with members of the jury, and antagonizing the judge. In this context, Abbie Hoffman’s late-night phone calls to a WBAI DJ during the trial take on a certain poignancy — Hoffman knows he’s getting in deeper and deeper, but he can’t imagine making the kind of compromise that would buy him any favors from the authorities.
The ultimate lesson? Sometimes you make a noble point by acting like a jackass. Inasmuch as Chicago 10 is a film about the glory days of the protest movement, the big question Morgen asks is: what happened? Where are today’s Chicago 10? It’s an interesting question. Part of the answer is circumstance. The U.S. is again in a wasteful, unpopular war, but, crucially, one that’s not being fed by a draft. And part of it is attitude — you get the sense Morgen feels the American left has become too fat and happy to get up from the table and try to force change. With this film, he’s out there jabbing it in the ass, trying to get it moving again. B