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.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailer (1968)

Norman Mailer himself gave evidence at the trial of the Chicago 7. And if you want to understand the riot itself, and the counterculture protests that swept America through the late 1960s, there is no better place to start than his trailblazing account of the year America went up in flames.

In early April, tens of thousands of hippies, Yippies, clergymen, intellectuals, celebrities, poets and pacifists flung themselves at the Democratic Convention in Chicago to protest against the Vietnam War. To them, the government was writing a cheque in young men's blood that the country couldn't afford.

But what began as a peaceful protest, quickly turned into several days of riots, police onslaughts, broken heads, broken windows, fire and fury. 

And Mailer was there to document it all, just as had been a year earlier when up to 200,000 people attempted to storm the Pentagon in his era-defining The Armies of the Night. What emerged was a swaggering masterpiece of narrative non-fiction that would become the defining account of the Chicago riots of 1968.

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.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg (1956)

This was the poem Allen Ginsberg was forced to read to the courtroom in a bid to discredit him as a witness in the trial of the Chicago 7. A prominent anti-Vietnam war activist himself, he was summoned thanks both to his friendship with two of the defendants, and for his involvement in the protest itself.

He rocked up to court wearing white tennis shoes and a large woven handbag swung raffishly over his shoulder, and gave one of the wildest moments of the proceedings, chanting “Hare Krishna” at the judge before reading sexually graphic and politically charged poetry to the jury.

Sadly, Sorkin decided to cut his testimony from the film, but did include the moment Ginsberg led a group of protesters through Lincoln Park during the demonstration while chanting “Ommmmm” for hours on end.

Though written in 1956, Howl became one of the definitive works of the 1960s counterculture movement.

Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight by Jon Wiener (2006)

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?

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe (1965)

Yes, it's a mouthful whichever way you chew it, but then, so was the burning issue it sought to illuminate. That, of course, was American counterculture of the mid 1960s.

While it doesn't directly cover the antiwar protests that would explode into the national conversation a year or so later, it does shine a light onto its roots and reasons, capturing the energy of the age, with all its kitschy Americana and progressive politics with spectacular vision.

It captured a time of hope and prosperity for America before civil rights and the Vietnam draft invited cynicism to the party.

Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag (1969)

There was a lot more to the Chicago riots than just anger. It was a time of profound political and cultural upheaval as the gears of change were creaking into motion.

So to get a tighter grip on the “youthquake” that was sweeping America at the time, and the radical ideas that were oiling said gears, Susan Sontag can help.

In this incisive collection of essays, she zooms out on America, tackling such issues as the Vietnam War, the rise of radical politics, film, pornography, literature and American identity and its future.

Given the subject matter of this list, you should begin with What's Happening in America and Trip to Hanoi. But all the essays capture, in Sontag's inimitable way, an essence of the times that is hard to beat.

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