Brett Morgen's bold, canny and sometimes thrilling documentary about the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots and the subsequent carnival-like trial of seven counterculture leaders may be history for the attention-deficit generation, but it's too good to ignore. As to the title, the remaining three are Black Panther Bobby Seale, whose case was severed during the trial from the others, and lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who were cited for contempt of court.
Morgen, whose equally innovative THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (2002) chronicles the career of Hollywood mogul Robert Evans, favors visual impact over painstaking chronology and authoritative-seeming interviews. The film jumps back and forth between archival news footage of the panic in Chicago's streets and the brutal response of the-mayor Richard Daley's police force, and the trial, depicted entirely in eerie rotoscoped animation. The soundtrack is an anachronistic mix of classical, rap, funk and rock, and it underscores a vivid evocation of the sheer, manic energy of counterculture pranksters like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, founders of the Youth International Party – the Yippies -- and the horrified reaction of mainstream Americans convinced that the very foundations of civilization were about to collapse. Morgen's avowed intent was to engage a generation for whom the 1960s are as distant as the 19th century and to encourage the kind of budding activists who staged street protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York to see parallels between the political landscapes of America in the 1960s and the late 2000s. There's an inevitable dearth of larger historical context, but the tenor of the times comes through loud and clear. In the weeks leading up to August 26-29th, 1968, Rubin, Hoffman and leaders of other organizations mobilized at least 15,000 young people, who converged on Chicago for a "Festival of Life," a loosely organized combination of be-in and political street theater. The Chicago Police Force came at them with clubs, and the resulting news coverage horrified readers around the world. Seven months later, Hoffman, Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale were indicted on charges of conspiracy, inciting to riot and various other offenses. Their trial was a non-stop media circus: The defendants – especially Hoffman and Rubin – baited elderly Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who never failed to take the bait; Seale was so obstreperous that Hoffman had him gagged and bound to a chair, another indelible image. The witnesses included Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, and the National Guard was deployed to quell protests outside the court building.
Rubin's gleeful observation that their trial was "the Academy Awards of protests" sums up the defendants' tactics, but Morgen balances their antics with reminders that there were real issues at stake, and that conviction on any or all of the charges would have real consequences. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh