Warning: This post contains spoilers from The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Aaron Sorkin's new film The Trial of the Chicago 7 recreates one of the most disturbing moments from the titular 1968 court case.
At the trial, seven anti-Vietnam War activists were charged with inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. Initially, Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, was named as an eighth defendant in the case. At one point, the judge, who denied Seale his choice of counsel and thus a means of defending himself, had him bound and gagged in the middle of the courtroom because Seale refused to silently endure this injustice. As would be expected, this is one of the most distressing visuals in the film.
To prepare for the physically and emotionally trying scene, Abdul-Mateen studied Seale's past interviews and tried to understand how he approached the horrifying experience.
"Bobby talks about this in an interview where talks about being in the hole," Abdul-Mateen tells EW. "He talks about how the things your oppressor will do to you are the things that he's afraid of being done to himself. So the way to overcome that is to not show fear, so that when he does the worst — the things that he will consider the worst things to you — and when it doesn't affect you, then you become his fear. And he becomes afraid of you, and you become stronger than him."
Choosing his words carefully, Abdul-Mateen continues: "That was really my mentality: that I am stronger than this moment. Bobby wasn't defeated by that moment. I believe that he challenged them to give him their worst, and they did. And it didn't defeat him. I wanted to go into that scene and come out of that scene a winner. Then I also knew that there's a responsibility to tell those stories."
When it finally came time to shoot the scene, Abdul-Mateen felt very supported on set. "I think Aaron did a phenomenal job of making sure that it was a safe step for me and making sure that I was comfortable on set, and making sure that I had everything that I needed in order to to physically and mentally prepare myself for those scenes," the actor says.
"Even though these things are props — these shackles — you're concerned about the actor. It's a mostly white crew that’s slapping these things on him," says Sorkin, who recalls that they shot the scene on the 50th anniversary of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton's assassination. "So I go to him, not necessarily after every take because I didn’t want to infantilize him, but every two takes and say, 'You all right? Doing okay? Want to take a break?' And he was [like], 'No, this is great. Let’s go. Let's go. I’m ready for another.' So that's how that worked."
Sorkin was in post-production of Trial of the Chicago 7 when anti-racism protests started sweeping the country following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Although he didn't alter the shackling scene in light of the summer's demonstrations, he did make one change to the sequence right before it, when the characters learn of Hampton's death — and he credits the idea to cast member Jeremy Strong.
"What I did was add quick cuts to crime scene stills [from Hampton's killing], police stills, black-and-white photographs of the bullet holes in the wall, of a blood-stained mattress, of five police officers almost smiling standing there, and adding the sound effect of a camera shutter," the writer-director says. Including the stills underscores the pervasiveness of police violence, and "makes the killing of Fred Hampton a bigger deal."
Sorkin continues: "We couldn't in this movie tell the whole story of what happened to Fred Hampton, and I'm glad there’s a movie coming out about the whole murder of Fred Hampton, Judas and the Black Messiah. So this just added to the gravity to the moment. But now in the world of Rashard Brooks and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, having those shots and having one of them be police officers obviously resonates today."
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream on Netflix now.