Reading lists

If you loved The Trial of the Chicago 7, you should read these books

Aaron Sorkin's new Netflix film has brought the political upheaval of the late-1960s back into focus. Here, from Norman Mailer to Allen Ginsberg, are some books to dive deeper into the trial that put the Vietnam War itself on the stand, and its context. 

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

It was the one of the most notorious legal battles in American history, a courtroom drama so wild and unruly that it'd feel more at home in a John Grisham novel than a US federal courthouse.

And now, the Chicago 7's infamous 1969 trial has finally been made into a movie more than half a century later. Aaron Sorkin's star-studded The Trial of the Chicago 7 has had critics in a lather since its release on Netflix this month.

It tells the story of a motley group of seven (initially eight) anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and how they turned their trial into a circus, lampooning proceedings with jokes, silly costumes and blowing kisses to the jury. Norman Mailer was a star witness. So was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

But, of course, no movie could fit into 130 minutes all the shenanigans of a trial that lasted five months. So here are some books to take you deeper into the trial that, ultimately, put the Vietnam War itself on the stand.

Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton (1973)

Remember Bobby Seale (played electrically by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) the Black Panther Party leader who is gagged and bound to a chair in court after a string of outbursts when Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) denies him his own choice of lawyer?

Seale was the eighth defendant until he was dropped from the trial. He was also the co-founder of The Black Panther Party, the radical Black nationalist group whose aim, among other things, was to challenge police brutality against African Americans.

Revolutionary Suicide is the explosive and oft-quoted memoir of his friend and Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, both a manifesto for revolutionary change and a portrait of the inner circle of America's Black Panther Party.

There are a handful of historical look-backs that put the trial into context, but this is the most engaging. Jon Wiener is the American historian who waged (and won) a 25-year war with the FBI to unlock its file on John Lennon, who was secretly investigated for years over his antiwar activism.

In Wiener's electrifying account of the “utter craziness of the courtroom” – the theatrics, the filibusters, the comical stunts – reveals both “the humorous antics and the serious politics involved” in the trial that came to define the battle between state and society of the late 1960s.

Who, exactly, were the Chicago 7 (initially the Chicago 8)? What did this motley group of politically active hippies, antiwar activists and Black Panthers have in common? And how did 1968 become such a cauldron of discontent?

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