Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Trial of the Chicago 7

Was Bobby Seale really bound and gagged in court? Did the anti-war activists actually dress up in police uniforms? We break down Aaron Sorkin’s new movie.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, and Abbie Hoffman, with a "Fact Versus Fiction" tearaway tag
Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, and Abbie Hoffman. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Bettmann/Getty Images.

The Trial of the Chicago 7, the new Netflix film from writer and director Aaron Sorkin, dramatizes the prosecution of eight anti-war activists—yes, eight—for their activities during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where protesters were beaten and tear-gassed by the Chicago Police Department. The trial was real and so were the defendants, but Sorkin otherwise plays pretty freely with characters and events to ensure his clockwork screenplay hits exactly the right beats in exactly the right order.

To determine how much of the movie is accurate and how much is Sorkin’s invention, we consulted the trial transcript, court records, memoirs, biographies, and contemporary media accounts. Here’s what we found.

The Chicago Seven

Abbie Hoffman

Comedian and inveterate prankster Sacha Baron Cohen gives one of the film’s most memorable performances as Youth International Party co-founder and inveterate prankster Abbie Hoffman.* Cohen did a great job of channeling Hoffman, as you can see by comparing this clip of Hoffman at one of his many midtrial press conferences to the re-creation in the film:

Hoffman and Jerry Rubin really did wear judicial robes to court one day, drawing the ire of the judge (Frank Langella), and according to Rubin, Hoffman had a police uniform on underneath.* Some of Hoffman’s most provocative courtroom antics during the trial didn’t even make the screen: He told the judge his actions were “a shanda fur die goyim,” suggested the judge would have to cut out his tongue to get him to be quiet, and at one point did a headstand on the defense table.

Hoffman spoke on college campuses about the trial while it was still in progress to raise money for the defense, and some of the monologues delivered in the film can be heard on his only record album, Wake Up, America!. As in the film, Hoffman did point out in court that Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address might have gotten him in trouble if he’d delivered it in Chicago in 1968, but the part where Sorkin has him quoting from the Book of Matthew appears to be an invention.

After the trial, Hoffman continued working in left-wing causes until 1973, when he was arrested for selling cocaine. He fled, altered his appearance with plastic surgery, and lived in a variety of places under a variety of pseudonyms before settling in upstate New York under the name Barry Freed before resurfacing in 1980. Hoffman served a year in prison for the cocaine charges and returned to public activism. He killed himself in 1989.

Jerry Rubin

Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, and Jerry Rubin.
Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, and Jerry Rubin. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Rubin (Jeremy Strong), who co-founded the Yippies, shows up in The Trial of the Chicago 7 as an amiable but not very articulate stoner. It’s easy to find footage of Rubin in a similar mode—e.g., his 1970 interview with Dorothy Fuldheim—but he could turn a phrase when he wanted to. It was Rubin, for example, who referred to the trial as the “Academy Award of protest”:

I wish to thank all those who made it possible. I realize the competition was fierce, and I congratulate the thousands who came to Chicago. I hope that I am worthy of this great indictment, the Academy Award of protest.

Sorkin’s script doesn’t have much room for Rubin to be clever, so he gives a version of that line to Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). In general, the movie’s Rubin is more of a bumbler than the real man was. FBI Special Agent Daphne O’Connor (Caitlin FitzGerald), the undercover cop who infiltrates the protest by buying Rubin a drink, did not exist; Rubin was instead trailed by an undercover police officer named Robert Pierson, who testified at the trial.

Rubin’s arrest wasn’t quite as heroic as it is in the movie, either. Sorkin has him preventing an attempted rape by saving a protester from conservative fraternity brothers angry that she is waving an American flag. While Rubin attempts to escort the survivor out of the park, a police officer puts a gun to his head and arrests him. That doesn’t seem to have happened: According to Pierson’s testimony, there was a fight over a flag, but it was caused by protesters replacing an American flag with a Communist flag, and we could find no record of any attempted rape. Jerry Rubin was arrested later on a Chicago street while he and a friend were looking for a restaurant to eat dinner at. Newspaper columnist Jack Mabley happened to be present at the arrest and was disturbed by the sight of police hustling Rubin into an unmarked car:

I have heard Rubin speak, and he was obscene and revolting. In America a man may be arrested for obscenity or revolution. But Rubin was grabbed off the street and rushed to jail because of what he thinks. This is the way it is done in Prague. This is the what happens to candidates who finish second in Vietnam. This is not the beginning of the police state, it IS the police state.

Rubin published his own account of his arrest (and disputed Pierson’s testimony) in the New York Review of Books. In the years following the trial, Rubin embraced capitalism, becoming a stockbroker and networking expert. When he died in 1994 after being hit by a car, he was working for a multilevel marketing company called Life Extension International, pitching a health drink called “Wow!”

Tom Hayden

Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, and Tom Hayden.
Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, and Tom Hayden. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Bettmann/Getty Images.

Sorkin gives National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) an important structural role in his screenplay that isn’t entirely true to life: Hayden serves as a stand-in for liberals who are sympathetic to social causes but think prankish protesters like the Yippies went too far. When Abbie Hoffman asks Hayden what his problem with him is, Hayden replies with this stirring speech about respectability politics:

My problem is, for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re gonna think of you. They’re gonna think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon. They’re not going to think of equality or justice. They’re not going to think of education or poverty or progress. They’re gonna think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foulmouthed, lawless losers, and so we’ll lose elections.

That does not seem to be how Tom Hayden viewed the Yippies during the trial, but it might be how a screenwriter who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s would justify not taking the counterculture seriously. There was definitely a difference between the way Hayden and Hoffman were perceived by Judge Julius Hoffman (Langella) and the public—at one point the judge observed that Hayden would fit in just fine with the establishment:

Don’t be so pessimistic. Our system isn’t collapsing. Fellows as smart as you could do awfully well under this system. I am not trying to convert you, mind you.

Judge Hoffman never offered any of the Yippies that sort of advice, to put it mildly, and Abbie Hoffman returned to that exchange during his own sentencing.

I remember when we were speaking before, you said, “Tom Hayden, you could have had a nice position in the system, you could have had a job in the firm.” We have heard that for the past 10 years, all of us have heard that. And our only beauty is that we don’t want a job. We don’t want a job there, in that system. We say to young people: “There is a beautiful future for you in the revolution. Become an enemy of the state. A great future. You will save your soul.”

While there was definitely a difference in how Hoffman and Hayden were perceived, it wasn’t as clear-cut as Sorkin makes it. It was Hayden, not Hoffman, who riled up the crowd at the beginning of the violent Days of Rage protests during the trial. And although Hayden’s speech at Grant Park exhorting the crowd to “make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city” was sparked by the beating of Rennie Davis, it wasn’t quite as out-of-character as Sorkin plays it; Hayden said similarly explosive things in the lead-up to the convention. Hayden wasn’t even as clean-cut as Eddie Redmayne appears. Here’s what Davis had to say during the trial about Hayden’s appearance at one point in the convention:

Tom had a ridiculous hat, and he was sort of dressed in mod clothing. I think he had a fake goatee, as I recall, and for a while he was carrying a handkerchief across his nose and mouth. I said, “Tom, you look like a fool.”

As for the film’s grand finale, in which Tom Hayden uses his allocution statement to read the names of the Americans who died in the Vietnam War while the trial was being conducted, it never happened. On Oct. 15, 1969, the defendants did attempt to observe the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam by reading the names of some of the war dead from both sides, but it seems to have been David Dellinger actually reading the names. (Abbie Hoffman got into a tug of war with a marshal trying to confiscate the North Vietnamese flag he’d brought.) Hayden gave two allocution statements during the trial—one for the initial charges and one for the contempt charges Hoffman brought—and used both to give speeches, but didn’t speak about the war dead.

Hayden went on to marry Jane Fonda and serve in the California Legislature. He died in 2016.

Rennie Davis

Anti-war activist Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) was committed to nonviolence, and the film accurately depicts the brutal beating he received at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. Sorkin doesn’t show that Davis was hospitalized with a concussion or that he had to be smuggled around the hospital to avoid the police. In real life, he did not keep a notebook in which he recorded the names of all the Americans killed in the Vietnam War since he was arrested; that was invented to set up Tom Hayden’s big scene.

After the trial, Davis became a follower of guru Prem Rawat and eventually established the Foundation for a New Humanity, which offers life coaching, spiritual training, and crystals “chosen for their properties to assist your journey to evolve.”

David Dellinger

Radical pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) was the oldest defendant at the trial by about 20 years, and the film accurately portrays him as a sort of avuncular figure connecting the New Left to older traditions of protest. Dellinger, imprisoned for being a conscientious objector during World War II, helped found the Committee for Nonviolent Revolution after the war, worked in the civil rights movement, and transitioned from there into the anti-war movement. Here’s some footage of the real Dellinger (and the real Rennie Davis) discussing the upcoming convention.

The incident during the trial in which Dellinger is pushed to his limits and punches a marshal was invented for the film. Dellinger was taken into custody by the marshals during the trial, but it was for interrupting a witness, then going on to call prosecutor Richard Schultz a “a snake” and “a Nazi.”

John Froines and Lee Weiner

John Froines (Daniel Flaherty) and Lee Weiner were the odd men out at the trial and ended up being the only two defendants acquitted of all initial charges. Although they were both charged with contempt of court, their sentences were lighter than the other defendants’. Sorkin portrays this dynamic without really explaining it beyond the idea that the two men were intentionally overcharged so the jury could find them not guilty, making it more likely to find the other defendants guilty. To make that point, Sorkin changes the details of Froines and Weiner’s indictment: In real life, they were accused of teaching protesters how to make Molotov cocktails. (In the film, Jerry Rubin is shown doing this.*)

Froines went on to a long career in science and academia, working for OSHA and teaching at UCLA. Weiner briefly taught sociology at Rutgers, until a remark about founding a new communist party got him fired. This summer, he published a memoir with his recollections of the trial.

Bobby Seale

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, and Bobby Seale.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, and Bobby Seale. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Bettmann/Getty Images.

Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who co-founded the Black Panther Party along with Huey P. Newton, was involved in the first stages of the trial before his case was severed from the other seven defendants’ on Nov. 5, 1969. He was treated just as horribly in real life as he is in the film. During the pretrial, Seale was represented by a group of lawyers that included Charles Garry, the civil rights attorney who was chief counsel to the Black Panther Party. Seale’s understanding was that Garry alone would represent him at trial—and in fact, he fired all his other lawyers—but when Garry needed gallbladder surgery and moved that the trial be postponed, Judge Hoffman unexpectedly denied the motion. That left Seale effectively without counsel, which he vigorously and disruptively noted, asking to cross-examine any prosecution witness who mentioned him and filing a motion to represent himself, which was also denied.

It’s true that Judge Hoffman had marshals gag Seale and handcuff him to his chair during the trial—telling them to “deal with him as he should be dealt with,” as in the film—but Sorkin has rearranged the chronology. In the movie, Seale gives the courtroom an impassioned speech about the assassination of Fred Hampton shortly after it happens, telling Judge Hoffman to “strongly fuck yourself.” In real life, Seale was chained to his chair on Oct. 29, 1969, and Hampton wasn’t killed until the early morning of Dec. 4. The actual inciting incident for Judge Hoffman’s order that Seale be bound and gagged happened when Seale, in the process of arguing for the umpteenth time that he should be able to cross-examine the witnesses testifying against him, criticized Hoffman’s choices in courtroom decoration:

You have George Washington and Benjamin Franklin sitting in a picture behind you, and they was slave owners. That’s what they were. They owned slaves. You are acting in the same manner, denying me my constitutional rights.

Seale didn’t tell Judge Hoffman to fuck himself, as far as we could find in the transcripts, but he did call him “a pig, and a fascist, and a racist.” (Judge Hoffman’s contempt citation, complete with examples from the transcripts of Seale’s misbehavior, can be found in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision remanding the contempt case against Seale to a different judge.)

In the years after the trial, Seale continued to work as a community organizer in Philadelphia and then Oakland, and wrote two memoirs about his life and work. He also wrote a cookbook, Barbecue’n With Bobby: Righteous Down-Home Barbeque Recipes by Bobby Seale.

The Prosecution

The government’s prosecutors on the case were Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Sorkin goes out of his way to make Schultz a little more sympathetic than Foran. In Sorkin’s telling, Schultz pushes back when John Mitchell (John Doman) suggests prosecuting the case (possible but unlikely), Schultz moves to sever Bobby Seale’s case from the others’ (that was actually William Kunstler’s doing—Schultz called the request an “obvious ploy” and a “mockery”), and Schultz stands while Tom Hayden reads the names of the war dead (this never happened).

It’s true Foran was even more insulting to the defendants and their attorneys than Schultz was—Foran was openly contemptuous of William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), whom he called a “mouthpiece” at one point during the trial. In comparison, Schultz comes off as less of a martinet and more of a prig in the trial transcripts. He also seemed pretty insecure about being laughed at, at one point demanding folk singer Phil Ochs tell him what was so funny, interpreting a stifled laugh to mean “either I was very homely and he was laughing at me or I said something amusing to him.” Kunstler assured him that Ochs was “a very gentle man” who was not laughing at his face.

The Defense

Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, and William Kunstler.
Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, and William Kunstler. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Afro-American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) served as counsel for the defense, and their demeanors and legal maneuvering are portrayed more or less accurately during the trial. The film downplays how much of a circus the defense’s case was: Celebrity witnesses included Allen Ginsberg, William Styron, Dick Gregory, Judy Collins, Timothy Leary, Arlo Guthrie, and Country Joe McDonald.* Sorkin also tones down Kunstler’s taste for the dramatic. At one point in the trial he started crying, and during Bobby Seale’s mistreatment, he remarked, “I just feel so utterly ashamed to be an American lawyer at this time.” Here’s some AP footage of the real Kunstler, sporting a way worse comb-over than Mark Rylance, making a statement after the sentencing:

John Mitchell and Ramsey Clark

The Trial of the Chicago 7 implies that part of the reason the defendants were charged at all was because incoming Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell was mad at outgoing Johnson Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) for submitting his resignation letter only an hour before Mitchell was to be confirmed. Although we couldn’t locate the actual resignation letter, if this happened as described in the film, it doesn’t seem to have been a major issue for Mitchell—it didn’t make newspaper accounts of his swearing in and isn’t mentioned in James Rosen’s 2008 biography. What is true is that Nixon used Clark as a whipping boy during his 1968 campaign, Mitchell criticized Clark’s reluctance to use wiretaps during his confirmation hearings, and the Nixon administration decided to bring charges despite the fact that Clark had concluded indictments weren’t warranted.

Clark was called to the witness stand, as seen in the film, and Judge Hoffman made Kunstler question him without the jury present, then excluded his testimony on the grounds that he didn’t think Clark could “make a relevant or material contribution” to the defense. Clark’s testimony wasn’t quite as fiery in real life: He never opined that the trial was a political prosecution, and, in fact, Kunstler’s questions seemed designed to establish that the Johnson administration had been planning for an unnecessarily large federal presence at the convention.

After the trial, John Mitchell, up to his ears in the Watergate break-in, had his own wife kidnapped as part of the cover-up. He would ultimately serve 19 months in prison for his role in Watergate, dying in 1988. Ramsey Clark’s career took him to some strange places: Along with a passel of American leftists, Clark’s clients included Lyndon LaRouche, Muammar Qaddafi, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein.

The Judge

Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, and Julius Hoffman.
Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, and Julius Hoffman. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Bettmann/Getty Images.

Casting Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman was Sorkin’s greatest stroke of genius, because the real Judge Hoffman spoke in Frank Langella dialogue, all stern admonitions and haughty dismissals. As unbelievable as it seems, Judge Hoffman, born in 1895, really did act with the malice shown in the film, dismissing objections from the defense before they were made and arbitrarily excluding evidence, witnesses, and even jurors. The incident where two younger jurors’ parents received threatening notes, purportedly from the Black Panther Party, really happened, and Hoffman really showed the notes to the jurors, though he didn’t hammer the Black Panther connection quite as hard in real life as he does in the movie.

By far the funniest tic Judge Hoffman displayed during the trial that didn’t make the movie was his love of dropping architect Mies van der Rohe’s name. The trial took place at van der Rohe’s Dirksen Federal Building, and Hoffman repeatedly admonished Kunstler for disrespectfully leaning on a lectern designed by someone he considered a great architect. Nearly two months into the trial, Hoffman mentioned he had known van der Rohe personally; during the defense’s case, Abbie Hoffman taunted the judge by noting that “Mies van der Rohe was a Kraut too.”

Incidentally, the Dirksen Federal Building’s courtrooms are quite different from the one in the film, in ways that may have affected the trial. There’s no bar between the audience and the attorneys’ tables, which made it easier for the defendants to play to the crowd, and the courtrooms had an oppressive grid of artificial lighting that led Abbie Hoffman to call it a “neon oven in a stainless steel cuckoo nest.” Sorkin puts Hoffman in a more traditional courtroom, which simplifies the film’s binary between young and old (and probably made things easier to light). Given Hoffman’s behavior during the trial, it’s kind of nice to think how enraged he would be that his beloved van der Rohe lecterns didn’t make the movie.

Hoffman continued to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois until his death in 1983.

Correction, Oct. 17 2020: This piece originally misstated that The Trial of the Chicago 7 included a scene in which Abbie Hoffman teaches people how to make a Molotov cocktail. It was Jerry Rubin. Additionally, this piece originally misstated the full name of the political faction Hoffman and Rubin co-founded. It was the Youth International Party.

Correction, Oct. 20, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Joni Mitchell testified during the trial. She did not, but Judy Collins did. Additionally, it originally misstated that Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were not wearing police uniforms under the judicial robes they wore to court one day. According to Jerry Rubin’s account in his 1971 book We Are Everywhere, Hoffman did.