The Trial Of The Chicago 7: the true story behind the gripping Netflix film

Posted by for Film

Netflix’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 – which boasts a cool 94% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes – revolves around a real-life trial from 1968.  This is the true story behind the movie.

Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin has brought many true stories to the silver screen over the years. 

And his new film, The Trial Of The Chicago 7, is no different, using an all-star cast to highlight the present-day implications of a real-life 60s courtroom drama.

Available to stream on Netflix from 16 October, the movie takes us back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when a peaceful protest turned into a violent clash with police and the National Guard, resulting in nearly 700 arrests.

The organisers of the protest – including Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) – were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot.

Co-founder of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), too, was arrested, despite the fact that he hadn’t been involved in organising the anti-Vietnam War demonstration and had spent only four hours in Chicago that weekend, having travelled there to fill in as a speaker.

The result of all this? One of the most notorious trials in history. Ever.

Watch the trailer for Netflix’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 below:

The Trial Of The Chicago 7 has been warmly received by critics, and boasts a 94% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

However, how much is truth and how much is fiction?

Here, we explore the true story behind the Netflix film.

What happened at the trial?

The trial began on 24 September 1969, with all eight defendants – Hoffman, Rubin, Hayden, Seale, David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) – charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot, to teach the making of an incendiary device, and to commit acts to impede law enforcement officers in their lawful duties.

From very early on in the trial, though, it became apparent to many that Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) was biased against the defendants, with the judge making sure to point out that defendant Abbie Hoffman was not related to him and voicing his disapproval of Kunstler’s long hair.

It wasn’t long, though, before Seale fell foul of Hoffman, and the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven.

What happened to Bobby Seale?

Seale’s lawyer Charles Garry, the civil rights attorney who was chief counsel to the Black Panther Party, was unable to attend the trial due to hospitalisation, and moved for it to be postponed.

Hoffman unexpectedly denied this motion, however, which meant that Seale was denied both a continuance and self-representation. 

The Trial Of The Chicago 7 takes us back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 takes us back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Furious over his mistreatment, Seale verbally lashed out, interrupting proceedings accusing Hoffman of racial prejudice. On 29 October 1969, Hoffman had Seale gagged and chained to his chair for refusing to obey contempt citations.

This shocking image of a Black man in shackles – rendered by courtroom artists, as photographers weren’t allowed inside – quickly made headlines around the world. A week later, Seale’s trial was severed from the Chicago Eight and, finding him in contempt, Hoffman had him sentenced to four years in prison.

As he was led from the courtroom, spectators shouted “Free Bobby!”. 

What happened next?

The remaining seven defendants – and in particular Hoffman and Rubin – did their best to derail courtroom procedures, repeatedly insulting Hoffman, referring to him as “Julie”, and even one day turning up to the court wearing judicial robes of their own.

The trial lasted five and a half months, illuminating the deepening schisms in a country torn apart by the Vietnam War, as well as attempts by the Nixon Administration to quash peaceful antiwar dissent and protest.

Indeed, at one point in the trial, all the defendants read the names of people who lost their lives in Vietnam (as per The Guardian). 

The Trial Of The Chicago 7 recounts one of the most notorious trials in history.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 recounts one of the most notorious trials in history.

This, in turn, led to protests outside the courtroom.

As The Chicago Tribune reports: “[There were] almost daily demonstrations gathering in the South Loop… [and] a Loop rally turned violent in the notorious Days of Rage riots, when members of the Weatherman faction and other anti-war groups ran amok in the city streets, breaking windows, fighting police and leaving an assistant city corporation counsel, Richard Elrod, partially paralysed when he tried to seize a demonstrator.”

What was the verdict?

Five of the defendants – Rubin, Hoffman, Hayden, Davis and Dellinger – were found guilty of inciting a riot. Defendants Lee Weiner and John Froines were acquitted of all charges.

All seven, however, plus two of their lawyers, were sentenced to prison terms for contempt of court.

Eventually, all of the contempt sentences and the riot charges were either dismissed by higher courts or dropped by the government.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now showing at select cinemas and available to stream on Netflix.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Netflix

Share this article

Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray