When it first appeared on Netflix last summer, several friends highly recommended The Trial of the Chicago 7. I resisted watching it. I was in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968 and for the trial that started a year later. It was a time of anger, hate, and stupidity, and I told Tony that I did not want that period brought back to me, and I thought the movie might do that. [I have written about my time in Chicago then on this blog a number of times. See the posts of Sept. 28, 2020, Sept. 11, 2020, April 15, 2020, June 17, 2019, August 30, 2017, and March 15, 2017] But I kept hearing how good the movie was, so I gave in and started to watch it. I no doubt was watching with a hypercritical eye, and I spotted some historical inaccuracies in the opening six-minute montage. I thought those flaws were going to color my perception of the film, so I stopped watching.
I wondered why this should bother me. When I watch a movie based on historical or biographical events, I do not expect that I am seeing a documentary; I know that I am not reading a scholarly book. Why should criticisms on historical grounds make a difference in enjoying or judging the worth of a movie?
I finally decided that it does matter because many people get their history only or primarily from popular media. Many of those people may, consequently, accept the inaccurate history presented by a film or TV show. I also decided, however, that a movie may be wrong on historical details, but still present important historical truths.
The 2014 film Selma about the voting rights marches in 1965 Alabama was criticized for being historically inaccurate, mostly in its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. My readings of history would agree with the criticisms. The movie also bothered me because left out of the film was any mention that many conservatives labeled the civil rights movement as communist-inspired. J. Edgar Hoover and others used that justification to monitor and undermine the movement. That is important in understanding that conservative roots in unfounded conspiracies are long and deep. On the other hand, even with some historical inaccuracies and omissions, the movie was “true” about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It captured the bigotry of America, and portrayed the incredible leadership of those fighting that bigotry. The movie underscored the great courage so many showed during the civil rights movement—not just the leaders, but “ordinary” people. In Selma people were willing to march to make this a better country even though they knew they would probably be beaten or worse. Selma, even if wrong in some detail, presented truths that should have advanced the historical understanding of anyone who watched it.
I know my standard seems oxymoronic; even if it has inaccuracies, a movie can convey important historical truths. And I must confess, I don’t know a good way to define the “truth” that overcomes the inaccuracies, but as I tentatively, oh so tentatively, think about this, I believe there is something in my distinctions.
In any event, when another friend named Tony told me that he had been moved to tears by The Trial of the Chicago 7, I tried it again. I started this time after the opening montage. It is an excellent film, one, as I had feared it would, affected me by reminding me about those chaotic demonstrations and riots and the brutal government response. Chicago 7 accurately depicted the ugliness of the period and the injustice of that shocking trial. I was moved, and as my friend had, I cried at the end.
Then I went back and watched the beginning. And, in words that are always hard to write, I was wrong about one of the historical inaccuracies that I thought that I had spotted. I thought initially that the movie gave wrong information about the pace of our Vietnam buildup. It didn’t. On the other hand, the movie gave the impression that the draft lottery was in effect in 1968 and the movie later on indicated that Tom Hayden had been affected by it. The lottery was first held in December 1969, after the trial started, and it did not affect anyone born before 1944, which Hayden was.
I don’t know why the filmmakers included the historical inaccuracy. It wasn’t necessary, but even so, The Trial of the Chicago 7 contained important historical truths. But I still have tentative and contradictory thoughts about how to weigh important historical truths against other historical inaccuracies in a historically-based movie.