Rennie Davis Applauded The Trial of the Chicago Seven...With Mixed Feelings

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in The Trial of the Chicago 7. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Before he passed away in February, Rennie Davis spoke with Juliet Wittman about his life and the film The Trial of the Chicago 7. Here's the original story that resulted from that interview:

For Rennie Davis, the release of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 — which started streaming on Netflix on October 16 — is well-timed, though he has reservations about the film’s authenticity. Davis himself was one of the seven — a primary organizer of the 1968 demonstration at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that sparked the charges against the defendants — and, with the rest, stood trial for five and a half months in 1969.

“The first thing I felt was the perfection of Sorkin and DreamWorks’ timing,” says Davis, who now lives in Longmont. “There’s such a parallel between what happened in ’68 and what’s happening now with the election days away, and so many people panicking that it may be the last. It’s just beautiful timing, and I really support the film in that sense.”

In August 1968, thousands of protesters converged on the DNC. Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago at the time, responded by refusing permits to march or to sleep in city parks, deploying 12,000 police and calling in 15,000 state and federal officers. The violence with which these officers responded to the gatherings — including planned attacks on reporters — will seem familiar to those who follow or attend today’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Davis himself was knocked to the ground and repeatedly clubbed. He managed to get to a hospital, where he received thirteen stitches. Afterward, the nurses hid him as police searched the building and smuggled him out.

At the start of the trial, eight participants were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot. In addition to Davis, they were David Dellinger of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE); Tom Hayden, co-founder with Davis of Students for a Democratic Society; John Froines; Lee Weiner; and Yippies (Youth International Party) Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Black Panther Bobby Seale was also arrested. He was gagged and chained to his chair for defying the judge, and was later cut from the case and tried separately.

Courtroom sketches of Seale’s silencing saturated the media and caused a national outcry. To some extent, the film deals with this, says Davis: “You see Bobby wanting to defend himself because his lawyer was recovering from surgery. He tries to cross-examine a witness. You get a sense of the buildup. Then, when he comes out chained and gagged, you don’t get an appreciation for the magnitude of what happened. Seale was held in chains for four days — not one, like in the movie. I remember sitting next to Bobby and seeing blood come out of his mouth. They’d try to press gauze into his mouth by force. The first day, the jury could hear him. Then they kept increasing the pressure.

“It was startling to see Bobby chained and gagged in an American courtroom because he tried to represent himself," Davis continues. "And it wasn’t just America. Africa heard him. Europe heard him. A world event took place. You don’t get any of that quality in the movie.”

The film boasts a star-filled cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella as Judge Hoffman and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Seale. Alex Sharp plays Davis, who has mixed feelings about the portrayal of himself and his friends. 

Davis says Sacha Cohen’s performance communicates Hoffman’s spirit and anarchic humor well — a humor he describes as “truly a delight in very dark times.” At one point, he remembers, the Yippies, led by Hoffman and Rubin, invaded the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange and threw down dollar bills, watching and laughing as the brokers scrambled to catch them. They organized a group that circled the Pentagon, chanting and meditating in what they said was an attempt to purify and levitate the building.

Rubin, on the other hand, is shown as “a drug addict who teaches demonstrators how to make Molotov cocktails” — a diminished view of a talented organizer. His friend was twice brought before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, says Davis, where he “brought a delightful tool of humor and ridicule to an institution that stands in defiance of everything America stands for.”

As for Davis, “I’m portrayed as kind of an extreme nerd,” he says. “I guess because I wore horn-rimmed glasses at the time. I’m afraid of my own shadow in the movie.”

But in fact, he and Hayden founded Students for a Democratic Society, which issued the highly influential Port Huron Statement.

“I was a coordinator of 150 national anti-war and civil-rights organizations,” says Davis. “Martin Luther King was in my coalition. There were compliments from, among others, John Lennon. I organized the largest civil disobedience in US history: In May1971, I stepped out in front of 100,000 ready to be arrested in Washington, D.C. We sat down on bridges and roads and blocked traffic to shut the government down. Historians say Nixon joined the Paris Peace Accords because of that demonstration.”

According to Davis, there were discussions during the actual trial about a movie, and Dustin Hoffman — who was to play Davis — attended every day of the hearings. Sorkin showed less interest in detail. The director has described his work as creating “a painting and not a picture,” comments Davis, “which is a polite way of saying how much of it is fiction.

“You don’t get from the film the negotiations about permits, how they got turned down," says Davis. "There’s so much humor in the trial that you don’t really get. The humor was so beautiful, really, and it wasn’t just Abbie and Jerry, though they certainly led the pack.

“There were serious moments, as well," he adds. "I went on the witness stand for three days; it was an opportunity to explain a speech I’d made. So I held up a bomblet given to me by a Vietnamese woman who’d lost her family to a cluster bomb and explained that if it went off in the courtroom, everyone there would die, but the courtroom would be intact for another trial. I was introducing the leading military weapon used in Vietnam to a jury who had never heard anything like this, and they were paying rapt attention.

“We were sincere. I’ve been to Vietnam twice. I brought back prisoners of war to their families.”

But the ending of the film, though fictionalized, is effective, Davis feels: “Hayden stands up and makes a statement on behalf of all the defendants. Earlier in the trial, the defendants had attempted to read the names of the dead in Vietnam, and Tom reads the names of the American soldiers who died. It’s a bit of a fictionalized thing, but impactful and well done.

“Movements to change the world happen," he says. When they do, civilizations can change: Think about the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the fall of the British empire. Today’s movement is at the beginning stage, but there’s the potential of a long progression.

“It’s one thing to go to a demonstration, see yourself as a full-time activist, know that that’s your job and what you do for life," Davis says. "That’s setting in now for millions of people. You don’t have to be a psychic to understand what's coming. People think there’ll be a vaccine and everything’s going back to normal, but it’s not going back to normal. Because of what’s coming, today’s movement will be like no other.

“We can all see that temperatures are warming up, droughts are taking place in this world where farmers have farmed for a thousand years," he worries. "And families are going to die or leave. Food chains are going to be snapping. We need to see what’s coming and create an option.”

In the mid-1990s, Davis says, he and a friend visited the Grand Canyon, and he wound up living at the bottom of the canyon for a few years, “Quiet. Not talking to anybody.” Now he teaches earth whispering. “I’d say to a movement that wants change that the earth has its own agenda.”

And history remains important: “Right now as we go into this election, the movie can have a huge impact," Davis says. “But to win Oscars, all Sorkin had to do was portray what really happened.”
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman