The Good Trouble in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Intentionally or not, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an exquisite display of the white man’s role in the American political and judicial systems, for better and worse.

One of the most telling moments from The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an accident. In protest against the callous and, at times, cruel actions of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the eponymous seven defendants agree to not stand in respect to the judge when called upon by the bailiff. When the time comes, however, one of the defendants, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), does stand. The rest look at him with surprised exasperation at his lack of solidarity. He looks at them with confused regret. “It was a reflex,” he says. Deference, even to a staunchly conservative decisionmaker, even on the part of a liberal activist, is second nature in the American courtroom.

It’s impossible to deny that some of The Trial of the Chicago 7’s punch comes from excellent, uncanny timing. The film takes place in 1968 during a tumultuous election year (complete with an underwhelming Democrat against a smarmy Republican) that also saw intense clashes of heated protests and police brutality. Written and directed by banter master Aaron Sorkin, the film chronicles the highlights of a trial that sought to punish activists for inciting riots outside of the Democratic National Convention. Of course, what actually occurred was police violence against protestors trying to speak out against the Vietnam War, but the newly placed Republican Attorney General wanted to prove a point.

Indeed, a point is made. Watching fifty-year-old images that could have been pulled from any social media account today, police violence and the conservative penchant for suppression is as American as apple pie.

But perhaps the most identifiable mirror to today’s political climate comes from Hayden’s knee-jerk respect for the establishment. The liberal bend to ardent conservative whims, the notion that respect offered means respect returned, has permeated into the political systems so that one party is consistently strong-armed by the other in the name of compromise. One sleeps well at night knowing they’ve kept their honor, the other sleeps well knowing they’ve won.

In a prelude to the film’s emotional climax, Hayden (who is, indeed, the vision of liberal virtue) confronts Abbie Hoffman, the progressive rabblerouser aptly played by Sacha Baron Cohen, on his methods for mobilizing the masses: “My problem is that for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re going to think of you. They’re going to think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foul-mouthed lawless losers, and so we’ll lose elections.”  

“Winning elections is the first thing on your wish list?” Abbie responds. “Equality, justice, education, poverty and progress. They’re second?”

“If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second.”

Keep the peace. Play to the middle. Be respectful. Win elections. It doesn’t matter what’s second.

The problem being, of course, that the other side doesn’t have to play respectability politics to win, which is why the beefed-up role of prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is such a curious addition. Schultz is hand-picked by Nixon-appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) to head up the prosecution, which carries with it a strong feeling of a passing of the guard.

Schultz is a largely symbolic player in this film. Yes, he’s conservative. Yes, he’s prosecuting a case in which the verdict is a foregone conclusion. But he has unwavering faith in the judicial system, an allegiance to Lady Justice so proud he’s as blind as she is. This gives him morality where other conservative players have none.

In the most inhumane moment of the trial, Judge Hoffman bounds, gags, and chains eighth defendant Bobby Seales to a chair for speaking out. The only Black defendant, Seales was only included in this crowd as a way to make the defendants look, in his words, “scarier” to a jury. Shortly after this, Seales’ inclusion was declared a mistrial, and in the film it was Schultz who convinced Judge Hoffman to do it. It’s suggested that Schultz did it because the judge “made a Black man a sympathetic character” so that would weaken the prosecution, but Gordon-Levitt plays the moment appalled. How could such a thing could happen in an American courtroom?

While this did happen at the real trial, there does not appear to be any evidence that the real Schultz had any involvement in getting Seales the mistrial. If Sorkin is interested in weaponizing Gordon-Levitt’s cheek-pinching nice-guy reputation, he is doing it to an uncertain end. The audience has such a relationship with this actor that it’s already hard not to want to be on his side, and this moment (along with several others) makes it impossible not to want to see him as a hero. So why give the fictional Schultz a moment of humanity that the real Schultz didn’t have? Why try so hard to convince us that the right wants respect as much as Hayden does, all while the right is displaying unseemly acts of cruelty?

To say The Trial of the Chicago 7 is trying to take a centrist stand wouldn’t be giving it enough credit but praising it for timeliness or relevancy may also be giving it too much. Development on this film began in 2007, before Obama took office and well before the word “president” preceding the name “Trump” was a sparkle in the GOP’s eye. Sorkin’s typical brand of snark is tamped down to a rather moving effect here (which could be because this film was in the hands of Steven Spielberg before his own) but his eagle-eyed sharpness is intact. His wit plays a superb balancing act to the darkness of the events and times the film discusses.

But intentionally or not, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an exquisite display of the white man’s role in the American political and judicial systems, for better and worse. On both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the stand, on both sides of liberalism, white men have been arguing amongst themselves about the direction of this country for so long that nothing has changed. The film is an echo of where we are in 2020, but we are also an echo of where the film was. Republicans, the establishment, have relied on the potency of this maddening echo chamber to respect authority, to hold fast law and order, which keeps white liberals like Hayden playing into their hand and keeping progress firmly planted in cement.

At the end of the trial and the end of the film, Hayden is called upon by Judge Hoffman to make a statement on behalf of the defendants. The judge requests that Hayden’s statement be “brief, respectful, remorseful and to the point.” Hayden reads the names of the American soldiers killed in Vietnam since the trial began. Triumphant music swells, some people in the court leave, shaking their heads, some people stand or cheer, Judge Hoffman furiously bangs his gavel. It’s both sweet and subversive in a romantic Hollywood way. It’s like Sorkin to employ such a neat ending, to reframe the narrative and lend the story a happy ending where there might not be one.

It’s not so neat out here, where I’m finishing writing this on election day. A president who has never played to the middle, who has never shown a modicum of respect to anyone or anything, may refuse the results of the election if he loses. Will there be a swell of music? Can we reframe this narrative? In a year that saw the deaths of both Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, The Trial of the Chicago 7 reminds us of their respective missions, and that we may have to keep doing it for fifty more years. Dissent. Get into good trouble. 

Strong Enough to Break – Requiem for a Fandom

I have always been someone who cares about something passionately. But

In the movie Adaptation, Meryl Streep’s character is fascinated by Chris Cooper’s character’s capacity for fascination. She is taken by his deep, all-encompassing love for things. Depending on the time in his life, it could be turtles, ice age fossils, resilvering old mirrors, tropical fish.

But: “Then one day I say, ‘Fuck fish.’ I renounce fish. I vow never to set foot in that ocean again. That’s how much fuck fish. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe in that ocean. And I love the ocean!”

She’s baffled. “But why?”

He shrugs, smiles. “Done with fish.”

I never understood that line.

What I did understand, however, implicitly, with all of my being, was the measure of longing Streep’s character has in the next scene when she confesses, “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.”

I have always known this. I have always been someone who cares about something passionately.

The first of those things always makes people laugh. It’s the band Hanson.

It was 1997. I was eleven years old. They were my age. They were happy, rollerblading, singing about utter nonsense with a melody so convincing that I never once questioned it. I was coming of age and they were there to greet me. It made sense.

Cameron Crowe tries but no one can really explain the impact of music on people and why they become such ardent fans of it, and that’s kind of the point. Music, even with lyrics, reaches parts of you that words and images can’t. Music begets both emotional and physical sensation. It burrows and pulls and lifts. It understands you but has no idea who you are. Within it you find parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed.

It was at the exact time that “MMMBop” was released that I first began listening to music at all. I was at the exact age at which human beings start to become sentient members of society, when you become aware of your surroundings. Hanson’s music burrowed and pulled and lifted – exalted! Their lyrics were uncommonly philosophical for their age and life experience. I loved them and I just never stopped.

It was such a love that as I got older, if people knew anything about me, it was this. Hanson is Angela’s favorite band. But, no, like, her favorite band. The kind of pride I felt for being recognized as this fanatical unicorn was consuming. After the initial scoffs, when people heard the depths of my fandom they’d often look at me with an impressed respect. Few people loved as deeply as I loved.

And I really, really loved. When I was young, I kept a box full of Hanson clippings from teen magazines. My bedroom was wallpapered with their faces for years. I saved trinkets from concerts I went to, and there are quite a few of them: I’ve seen them live 19 times. (Hardly a number, compared to some fans.) I met them twice: once in 2004 when I camped out with friends at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square for the debut of Underneath, and again in 2005 when I had the opportunity to interview them for the official fan club. (I never did submit that interview… sorry, Leigh.) For the interview, I got to sit in a little room with just the three of them. It was surreal and spectacular and a total blur. I was understandably nervous but kept a reasonable cool even though they talked over and to each other the whole time, so much that I could barely keep up scribbling the answers to my lame questions. I still have the blue Hanson hat my dad bought me at my very first concert.

On the 20th anniversary of Hanson Day, I finally got my Hanson tattoo. I figured two decades was long enough to prove my love was real, and I had spent much of those two decades trying to decide what to get. Hanson has a cute little logo, but I couldn’t envision it neatly anywhere on my body. Instead I drew a little design based off of some typography I found on Pinterest to fit around lyrics from their song, “Weird.” Even though it’s one of the earliest tracks from their debut album, it resonates still: “Isn’t it weird?”

It is.

It wasn’t just the painfully slow, way-too-delicate way in which Hanson as a group and individually addressed the Black Lives Matter protests and the events preceding them. It didn’t help.

I encourage everyone to come to their own conclusions about the massive compilation of receipts, but from where I’m sitting, Zac Hanson is a robust supporter of things I find morally and ethically abhorrent, including the defense of Stand Your Ground laws and of the murderer of Trayvon Martin. I can’t imagine anything more disingenuous or hypocritical than retaining my status as a Hanson fan after learning this information.

Is there a part of me that always suspected this could be the case? Sure. These guys were born and raised (and are bearing and raising their children) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bible belt, the location of the decimation of Black Wall Street, the place where the mayor just said on the radio “we’re shooting African Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be,” and where the current president of the United States will be holding his next rally… on Juneteenth. Racism lives everywhere, but maybe the odds were against them.

This is exactly the situation Hanson has been trying to avoid their entire careers. One podcaster got closer than most recently, and he tried to find the crack that could release the shitstorm and was baffled that he couldn’t. Regarding their personal lives, Hanson’s collective lips are incredibly tight. The Middle American, grass-fed boyishness of “MMMBop” never quite stopped being their brand. But there is no maintaining boyishness, despite the veneer. The men they became fully understand that the power they possess over their (mainly female) fans has everything to do with pulling the tether tied to hormonal nostalgia, of maintaining their fans’ freakish desire for proximity to them. And they granted it all. Enough slack on the tether, anyway, to keep the fandom going for nearly a quarter of a century. The boys of Hanson became very talented businessmen.

Tulsa is the epicenter of Hanson fandom. Before hopping a flight to Vegas for our honeymoon last year, my husband and I stopped in Tulsa for a couple of days. We went out to Route 66 and saw the big oil guy statue. The Game of Thrones finale happened to fall one of those days, so watching that and then talking about it took up a considerable chunk of time. And of course, we went to see a Hanson concert and observe some Hanson Day activities.

Yes, there is a day. And it’s become an annual, week-long celebration in Tulsa not just for fans, but specifically for members of their fan club, because you have to be a paying member to participate. (There is an additional charge for the events you want to attend, at which members of Hanson also attend, if only for a short while.) Lots of women exactly like me, white and in their thirties, go to Hanson Day every year.

After the concert, I ran into some internet friends from my days on as a teen (I was quite active). The general air about the table at which we convened for some craft beers and apps was skeptical at best. These women decided to come to Hanson Day on a lark, and while we all agreed we enjoyed the show (how could we say otherwise?), I wouldn’t say any of us were exactly enthused. The conversation was around why they hadn’t released anything but a single, a Christmas album, and a reissue of old recordings with an orchestra dubbed in in years… presuming they didn’t want to be around each other long enough to record anything new. We wondered why the subject of their songwriting has recently lapsed into somewhat lazy musings about achieving your dreams, instead of something – anything –  more sincere. If we had asked ourselves why we were there, why we were still doing any of this, I’m not sure any of us would have had an answer, except maybe “habit.”

It’s going to sound rather convenient now to confess that for the last few years I’ve been reevaluating my relationship with Hanson, but I have (do I even like this kind of music anymore?), and the trip to Tulsa didn’t help. Seeing dozens and dozens of women walking up the main drag to a venue to (pay to) watch Taylor DJ for a couple of hours, all I could think of was, This is his job. He had dinner, put his kids to bed, then went out to DJ for some fans for a couple of hours, then he’ll go home. Check the mail.

I’m not trying to be critical about the way they’re making their money. Since Hanson created their own record label in the early 2000s, they’ve bolstered their revenue stream beyond album sales to these sorts of events (they also host an annual trip to the Caribbean) and the way they’ve been able to sustain their brand is honestly pretty impressive. That moment for me was just so pedestrian. Celebrities, actors, bands go to comicons or host cruises all the time. But Hanson’s pull is so great their fans come to them.

The relationship between band and fan cannot be reciprocal, and it’s that lack of reciprocity that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. It’s not Hanson’s fault, and in fact it’s advantageous for them to exploit it, so more power to them. But in being as big of a fan as I was for the bulk of my life, I’ve given to them more than I would ever get back, and I don’t just mean money. Because this kind of fandom is not just about an exchange of material goods. When we watch bands play live, we face them and they face us, like a conversation. The love, the joy, the energy, the ineffable ephemera that’s created when you’re an intense fan of something is sent back to the creator, like gratitude. That’s how it feels for me, anyway. Felt. But there’s no returning that. It just doesn’t go the other way.

And now there’s this. Because how can I see Hanson live again? Am I supposed to simply ignore the mental asterisk of racism, transphobia, homophobia? How can I listen to Zac singing about being broken, misunderstood, when now maybe I know what he was talking about? How can I participate in being a fan, as someone who is trying every day to be a better white person to the world, knowing that at least one third of this band thinks this way? My decades-long stream of gratitude feels like it’s being spit back out at me.

The loss of my fan status will mean nothing to them. Maybe not the sign of a great relationship. Maybe intense fandom (eventually becoming toxic fandom) should generally be reconsidered.

Some fans will be okay with this. Of other people’s reactions to this I have no opinion.

If there is a fall from grace it won’t be financial, but perhaps worse (for them), reputational. There will be those who want to defend their reputation, to claim their outward, perceived goodness relieves them of all sins. Hannah Gadsby said, “We only care about a man’s reputation. What about his humanity? Fuck reputation. Hindsight is a gift. Stop wasting my time.”

I will mourn their hooks, their harmonies, the wall of sound that their best songs have and that they’re so good at making. For their intensely thoughtful lyrics that spoke for me when I couldn’t find the words. For the feeling of their sound vibrating through my veins. For the visceral jolt of joy I would feel hearing the first chord of “MMMBop” played live. I’m thankful that I don’t have to mourn the community of women I’ve gotten to know very well over the decades, because that love runs deeper than our favorite band.  

What I don’t have to mourn is my own life being taken recklessly and with purpose from a police officer because implicit bias and hate guided their hand based on my skin tone. I don’t have to mourn for my livelihood when legislation was passed at my expense because I don’t identify with my assigned gender. I don’t have to mourn my future for a lack of generational wealth. I don’t have time to list all of the things I’m privileged to say I don’t have to mourn.

I’m oddly not heartbroken. To wish that I was would signal that this fandom guided my life more than it does. I’m relieved to know that. I’m sure some Hanson fans will read this and decry I was never really a fan… a claim that is a ridiculous measure of worth but admittedly one that once upon a time would have destroyed me. But it’s fine. I didn’t know anything then, and we shouldn’t be expected to continue believing anything with enough experience, wisdom, and a shit ton of receipts.  

Done with fish.

Black lives matter.

‘Disobedience’ Betrays Its Characters

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Disobedience follows Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weiss) from New York back to her home town in England after learning that her father, a renowned and beloved rabbi in an orthodox Jewish community, has died. She has not been present in the community for an indeterminate amount of time, and it’s unclear whether she left of her own volition or if she was kicked out. Her presence is accepted, but not welcomed, and soon we learn that she was once romantically involved with Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams). Esti still lives and works within the religious community, and has since married their mutual childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Ronit and Esti rekindle their love in short order. They want to be together, but Esti is reluctant to take the leap.

While the elevator pitch and posters of the face-to-face pair of Rachels might make you believe their film is this year’s Call Me by Your Name or Carol, Disobedience falls far short. The former two films were both empathic portrayals of gay couples navigating a world that was unaccepting of their love. They captured a feeling of remote danger; their respective leads knew what was expected of them, and knew the consequences if they deviated those expectations. A deep, stirring force within them made them choose love over propriety.

Making a conscious choice is something Disobedience wants you to believe its characters have the ability to do. In fact, it bookends itself with monologues on the biblical idea that humans were given free will, a trait is both a blessing and a curse. But time and again it’s unclear whether the characters in Disobedience are making a choice, or merely succumbing to the pressure of others.

Ronit and Esti’s given action is to rise above a suppressive community and religion in order to live their most authentic lives. For as monumental a task as this should be, Disobedience is frustratingly undeserving of its title. The word itself connotes that one is willful or defiant; that one is disobedient when they’re acting under conscious rebellion of a status quo. However, any strength that these characters possess either doesn’t exist, or is too implicit to be felt. Of course, we get the idea that it’s difficult to leave one’s orthodox community, but Disobedience doesn’t try very hard to present us with what consequences look like. Ronit appears to have a happy and fulfilling life after leaving her community and her father. We feel some moments of her isolation, others her pride. But for a film that wants free will to hold a mirror up to orthodoxy, Disobedience never gets close to exploring how hard won freedom is. It requests us to understand the toll that their communal pressures take, while presenting characters whose decisions seem rather easy.

Guilt seems to be the only force keeping Esti where she is. There’s no fire and brimstone in Judaism like in the Chrsitian faiths, but the consequences of being gay in this world are hardly examined. The film makes it seem like the off-handed remarks and furrowed brows of their elders at Shabbos is the worst that could happen if Ronit and Esti were found out. There is a moment when the security of Esti’s job comes into question, which could create some stakes, but she never fully commits to preserving the things that are keeping her in that community. Instead, she goes off to a hotel with Ronit directly after leaving her boss’s office.

There’s a kind of certainty that Ronit and Esti have in each other that lessens the drama. It’s unclear how long Ronit’s been away, but the two women disclose to each other that they haven’t really been with any other women. Their love for each other is to be taken as a given. Their childhood affairs weren’t a simply dalliance, but the stuff of soulmates. The definitiveness of their love doesn’t leave room for Esti to have much in the way of a struggle of faith. She’s accepted the life she’s leading, but she’s passionate for Ronit, and yet she’s reluctant to fully commit to either.

Disobedience tries to present two irreconcilable sides to life: the unrestrained and the structured. Ronit’s hair is free and flowing, while Esti’s is kept under a wig. Ronit and Esti’s sex is free and impulsive, even a little nasty, contrasted with the under-the-covers scheduled missionary that Esti has with Dovid earlier in the film. As Ronit takes Esti’s picture, you understand the sensation of someone seeing you the way you want to be seen, versus how you think you should appear. There are times when you feel the sensation of feeling suffocated where others feel at home. But these moments are too fleeting to have much impact on a film that seems to have trouble determining who to empathize most with: its world or its characters.

Disobedience implores its characters to choose, but it never chooses for itself, so any conflict ultimately rings hollow. Perhaps what it’s missing is a grand, impassioned speech. Something that would lead us to believe that these characters have any faith in their decision-making. But there’s no scene that acts as a middle finger against an institution that shames and shuns people; no act of defiance at all. Perhaps most annoying is for all its outer trappings of feminism, Disobedience leans too heavy on orthodox minutia to become anything resembling feminist.

It’s certainly not the responsibility for films featuring marginalized characters to speak directly to our fraught times, but films should have a responsibility to their characters to represent their struggles in a way that does those struggles justice. Intellectually we understand the difficulty of breaking from deeply ingrained expectations, but Disobedience never explores how difficult that can be. Instead, characters are too dutiful to tradition to make their choices feel revolutionary. They’re not disobedient. They’re submissive.