By Tobias Grey 

Among the characters in the new Netflix film, "The Trial of the Chicago 7," is a U.S. Attorney General who calls for a return to the homespun manners of his youth. But Aaron Sorkin who wrote and directed the starry film, which is set during the late 1960s, insisted that any similarities with the present weren't by design. "The script didn't change to mirror events," he said. "Events changed to mirror the script."

"The Trial of the Chicago 7," available on Netflix from Oct. 16, recounts the real-life events surrounding an anti-Vietnam War protest that degenerated into clashes between demonstrators and police leading to one of the most notorious trials of the 20th century. Mr. Sorkin hewed as closely as he could to the chaotic events of 1968 by shooting the riot scenes at the same Chicago locations where they originally happened and intercutting his narrative with black-and-white documentary footage of the clashes.

"The Trial of the Chicago 7," which stars Sacha Baron Cohen as the radical activist Abbie Hoffman and Eddie Redmayne as his more buttoned-down collaborator and fellow defendant Tom Hayden, joins a series of projects which are tapping into the current climate of civil unrest by looking back at historical moments of protest and advocacy.

These include the Gloria Steinem biopic "The Glorias" which landed on Amazon Prime last month, Showtime's new series "The Good Lord Bird" about the fire and brimstone abolitionist John Brown, the anthology miniseries "Little Axe" about the British Black experience from the 1960s to the 1980s which premieres Nov. 20 on Amazon Prime, and "Judas and the Black Messiah," a biopic about the Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton which is due to be released next year. They follow the well-reviewed miniseries "Mrs. America," from FX on Hulu, which covered similar ground as "The Glorias," though from the perspective of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly as played by Cate Blanchett.

Most of these projects were shot before Black Lives Matter protests gripped cities across the U.S., but their historic themes already felt contemporary for producers. "When CAA came to us with this script by Aaron Sorkin about racial inequalities, injustices and protesting the calcified establishments of our government -- how could you not want to be a part of that?" said Cross Creek's Tyler Thompson about coming on board as a producer of the film.

Mr. Sorkin finished the first draft of his screenplay for "Trial" back in 2007 after being approached by Steven Spielberg who was then lining it up to direct. However, the project became almost immediately sidelined when the Writers Guild of America went on strike. It remained on hold until 2017 and Mr. Sorkin signed on as director.

Mr. Baron Cohen reached out to the makers of "Trial of the Chicago 7" about the role of Abbie Hoffman. Mr. Baron Cohen had been interested in Hoffman since his college days when his undergraduate thesis at Cambridge University was about radical Jews in the civil-rights movement. The British actor wore a curly wig and adopted a Boston accent (with a hint of Brooklyn) for the role, capturing what Mr. Sorkin described as the movie's "Elvis character where you have to pay attention to physical and vocal qualities."

As Mr. Sorkin completed his movie, "suddenly protesters were being met with tear gas, riot clubs and federal troops," he said. "Watching the footage every night of protesters clashing with the police it looked exactly like 1968 all over again."

Some off-the-cuff remarks Donald Trump made about a protester on the eve of the Nevada caucus in early 2016 also spoke to Mr. Sorkin's movie in a way that he could never have predicted, he says. "Trump started waxing nostalgic about the 'old days' when they would have taken that guy out of there on a stretcher after beating the crap out of him," Mr. Sorkin says. In "Trial" there is a true-to-life scene where the Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is shackled and gagged in the courtroom at the behest of judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

"The Glorias," which stars Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore as younger and older incarnations of Gloria Steinem, was also a project that its director and co-screenwriter Julie Taymor began developing before Mr. Trump was elected president, when she had thought the country would have its first female president. "Obviously that didn't happen," she says. "So the movie became even more critical and more important to get out and to show all of the things that we're still struggling with today."

In "The Glorias," Ms. Taymor says she was especially determined to highlight the role African-American women, such as Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle MonĂ¡e) and Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), played in leading the second wave of feminism that emerged in the 1960s.

"There really is no equivalent to individuals like Hayden and Hoffman today because social media does that job now," Mr. Sorkin says. " Twitter just says get on the streets and everybody does it so it's not as well-organized as it was. Of course I understand the irony that I'm talking about a protest being well-organized that ended in catastrophe, but right up until the final moment it was well-organized."


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 14, 2020 19:14 ET (23:14 GMT)

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