By Clémence Rebora
No other film genre conveys the idea of responsibility, to one’s beliefs and towards others, better than the courtroom drama. Using law as a tool to play with the audience’s belief in justice, courtroom dramas place a topical concept on trial rather than a single character. The success of the genre stems from its potential to captivate and engage an audience with tight pacing and camerawork, placing the viewer directly on the judge or jury’s stand. In a courtroom drama, a moral and legal responsibility is bestowed upon the litigating characters, but also implicitly on the audience. As the primary demographic targeted by film studios is white, the number of courtroom dramas aiming to put race on trial has exponentially grown since Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Through a contemporary lens, such movies can seem like an answer to what the world goes through, a solution to real-life prosecutions that do not benefit from the comfort of a fictional happy ending. The recent trial of Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s murderer, has felt to many like a potential catalyst for change, despite many unsatisfactory elements. The use of single events as catalysts for movements or earth-shattering change is a good tool for fiction because it is engaging, especially emotionally. This is why we see such events translated into fiction, and the reason why the atrocious murder of George Floyd will likely become a narrative, much like the story of the Central Park Five.
Stories with a narrative, important to a specific moment in history, are often branded as relevant, but the concept of timeliness is dangerous to take at face value. The example of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) demonstrates how important the notion of ‘relevancy’ has become in contemporary filmmaking. The movie relates the events of early 1969, when eight men including Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, and Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party (‘Yippies’), were tried for conspiracy and rioting after demonstrating at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Considering the trial’s historical importance as encapsulating a deep-rooted political and racial dispute, representations in a limited runtime should have been cautious. Yet Sorkin’s movie misrepresents crucial parts of the trial’s events. While Bobby Seale barely resists when he is gagged in the courtroom in the movie, Seale in reality wiggled out of the restraints repeatedly. Another divergence from reality is the assassination of Fred Hampton by US police, which took place on December 4th, 1969 but which appeared before Seale was gagged in the movie. This dramatization of events is done unabashedly yet never acknowledged. Ironically, of all the reviews for The Trial of the Chicago 7, it would be challenging to find one that does not mention its ‘topical’ nature, especially at a time when the previous US President unequivocally denigrated (civil rights) protestors.
In reality, the movie failed to find the correct base for timeliness. Certainly, making a movie (or any piece of media) time-relevant has a marketing purpose, but one can wonder if the line between bait and sincerity is ever really set. This is all the more important when ‘bait’ becomes synonymous with ‘exploitation’, as academic Zoé Samudzi comments in her 2020 Art in America essay: “Where Blackness is en vogue and atrocity images are a hot commodity, it becomes difficult to produce a commentary or satire that does not read almost identically to the quotidian flows of violence”. The same can be seen in courtroom dramas, where the use of the white saviour trope often takes the focus away from anything that does not contribute to making the Black character(s) a worthy cause. When Black characters are relegated to plot devices and stripped of their agency solely to benefit a white character’s narrative, race becomes an ironic canvas for contradiction.
When films try and fail to illustrate reality, the risk becomes bigger than just that of a single trope or plot device; they come together in a dangerous rewritten history. Pretending that historical revision is acceptable even as it glosses over dark moments or waters down power struggles for the sole reason that audiences are expected to know the facts is harmful.
Furthermore, because film is a credible media, semi-fictional accounts of historical events risk supplanting our shared memory of events. This is even more damaging because it stops encouraging the viewer to question what they are watching. The example of The Trial of the Chicago 7 once again comes to mind, with its complete reduction of the pain inflicted upon Bobby Seale in the courtroom scenes. The movie misses the opportunity to relate the Chicago Trial in terms of the experiences of the eight men who faced it, and instead focuses on idealised versions of the white protagonists, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman. This is made possible and effective thanks to director Aaron Sorkin’s reputation and acclaim as a potent political screenwriter, which allows the movie to surf a wave of wokeness. Yet this attitude to the source material does not only involve Sorkin but rather all of us, starting with the Academy who nominated The Trial of the Chicago 7 for seven awards, in the same breath as it nominated Judas and the Black Messiah, a black led movie recounting the events leading up to Black Panther figure Fred Hampton’s assassination, for three awards. The coexistence of such diverging versions of the history of Black people, some in which they are background characters and others in which they have a true place, confirms and upholds a gap between viewers: different interpretations of history are marketed towards different demographics based on how likely they are to believe them.
This is not a new phenomenon, but if movies like The Trial of the Chicago 7 work it is because audiences can weather seeing them, and because the glamourised rewritings of history are more comfortable to sit with than the often grimmer state of reality. This is also where relevancy becomes a trap: the implication of universal timeliness is a falsehood when a film is only really topical for those who fail to question the implications of its revised politics.