Brett Morgen is a writer/director/producer of documentaries. His first feature-length documentary, Ollie’s Army (1996), featured the former Marine and conservative pundit, Oliver North (of Iran-Contra infamy).
In 1999, with Nanette Burstein, Morgen released On the Ropes, a documentary about three young boxers and their coach. This film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, and won a number of film awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the Directors Guild of America award for best documentary, and the same award from the International Documentary Association.
After On the Ropes, Morgen is perhaps best known for The Kid Stays in the Picture, an “inside-Hollywood” look at the controversial and legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans. This film was nominated for twelve minor film awards, winning four.
Morgen’s latest documentary was Crossfire Hurricane, a television documentary about the fiftieth-anniversary tour of the Rolling Stones. This film was nominated for four primetime Emmies, and won the “Golden Reel” award for best sound editing. (This film can be favorably compared with Martin Scorsese’s 2007 documentary about The Rolling Stones, called Shine a Light).
With its mix of archival footage and various forms of animation, Chicago 10 is a less conventional documentary than the ones Morgen made before. The film was generally well reviewed, though it was panned by some of the bigger media outlets and has not garnered the kind of awards that Morgen has previously won. There were mixed reviews on Morgen’s use of animation in the film.
At Time Out, Ben Kenigsberg writes that
this unclassifiable cine-essay from Brett Morgen . . . burnishes the Chicago Seven trial with an iGeneration makeover. Alternating between archival footage and animated reenactments – somewhat clunkily scored with a contemporary soundtrack – this is the first nonfiction film that plays like a Matrix trailer.
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has a different take on the film. He concludes:
In the end, the truest thing that can be said for “Chicago 10” is that, though Morgen did just about everything he could to make his movie unwatchable, the story was interesting enough to fight him to a draw.
The film chronicles the creative provocations of anti-war activists at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago, and the police push-back. Two of the defendants, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were members of the newly-formed activist group, the Yippies. The Yippies were well known for their political street theater, which took on monumental proportions in Chicago during the convention. Other defendants, such as Rennie Davis and David Dellinger, represented the slightly more mainstream peace group, the National Mobilization Committee, or MOBE. A third defendant, Bobby Seale, was an organizer for the Black Panther Party.
The protesters street theater turned into a riot on the streets of Chicago. It is generally acknowledged now that it was Mayor Daley’s police who created the riot, not the protesters. But arguably this is exactly what the protesters wanted, since it showed quite concretely the lengths the authorities were willing to go to maintain order and perpetuate a repressive status quo based upon war and profits.
When they went on trial, the leaders of the protest at the Democratic convention in 1968 brought their theater out of the streets and into the courtroom. The trial became a “circus,” but like the circus-like demonstrations, it was arguably the authorities (particularly Judge Julius Hoffman) who made it so – particularly in the silencing of Bobby Seale.
Chicago 10 and the Counterculture
Earlier in the semester, when we viewed Apocalypse Now, we discussed the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, which was characterized by newer, looser conceptions of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll,” and, eventually, anti-war protest. I posted a blog entry in which I argued that Apocalypse Now shows the “dark side” of the counterculture, reflecting the moral exhaustion the followed the conclusion of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (which forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974).
By contrast, Chicago 10 shows us the vibrancy (and sense of humor) of the student-led peace movement in the United States circa 1968. In this sense, Chicago 10 is more like Jean-Luc’s Godard’s Weekend, from 1967, than Apocalypse Now – though Godard is somewhat critical of his student revolutionaries, whereas Morgen is quite celebratory.
Still, though in Chicago 10 we see the American counterculture through rose-colored, psychedelic glasses, there is a hint of dark times to come. We see this in the growing stridency and militancy of the peace movement, which would lead to some students taking up arms (and bombs) for peace. Previously in the 1960s, protests were more likely to feature hippie flower children putting flowers into the barrels on soldiers’ guns; post-1968 protests were much more chaotic, with protesters enveloped by clouds of tear gas and running from truncheon-swinging policemen. Indicative of this is the violent tactics of the protesters in Chicago, and the ubiquitous use of the “p” word (“pig”) in reference to the police.
Chicago Ten and Seven
As I mentioned in class, if you’re looking for historical background on the film, you’ll want to search for “the Chicago 7,” not “the Chicago 10.” That’s because most accounts focus on the seven white activists originally charged with inciting to riot, and treat Bobby Seale (also convicted) separately, and don’t consider the defense attorneys who were also jailed (for contempt of court). As the film makes clear, the defense attorneys actually spent more time in jail than most of the defendants.
Morgen is right to consider Bobby Seale as one of the ten – despite not being one of the main organizers of the protest, and being separated from the rest of the defendants – since his horrendous treatment (being denied the right to defend himself, dragged out of the courtroom, and later gagged in the courtroom) is one of the more controversial aspects of the trial.
University of Maryland
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Ben Kenigsberg, “Review of Chicago 10,” TimeOut (February 26, 2008).
Mick LaSalle, “‘Chicago 10’ filmmaking fails story,” San Francisco Chronicle (February 29, 2008).