It’s All In The Message

Joe Milo
Joe Milo
Dec 1, 2020 · 6 min read
To Kill a Mockingbird, possibly the most well-known of all the Courtroom Dramas.

The Courtroom drama, as a genre, rests on the laurels of its message. It’s what sets the weak from the chaff, the milquetoast from the biting. Courtrooms are an incredibly useful place to set a drama as the process of questioning witnesses, interacting with the judge and making statements allows for the characters to display their true colours. There is no need to manufacture the dramatic moments in a courtroom, they are dramatic by nature, so the director can simply press play and allow the film to happen. This is where the best examples of the genre really shine. A film’s message is the product of its direction and an amazing director will take the well-established ideas of the courtroom drama to underline and dissect an incredibly important message.

This can result in a lasting impact. But there is also the possibility that a courtroom drama will feel as if it were on autopilot, just going through the motions that the audience expects. This isn’t the product of the film’s structure however, it’s a result of its message. Seeing as there is little for manoeuvre, as every trial needs Jury selection, arguments, witnesses and a verdict, almost every courtroom drama has the same structure. It’s possible to deviate from the norm, using flashbacks or a cutaway but there is a rigidity that determines how the film plays out. Therefore, a courtroom drama with a powerful message but a simple structure will always be more impactful than one with novel structural ideas and a watered-down message.

A brilliant example of the former is Steve McQueen’s latest project Small Axe: Mangrove. Part of his new series of Television Films for the BBC Small Axe, Mangrove focuses on the titular Notting Hill restaurant run by noted civil rights campaigner Frank Crichlow. A community hub and haunt of the rich and famous, it hit the headlines in 1970 after a march on the local police station resulted in the arrest of Nine individuals, including Crichlow, under suspicion of rioting. The film focuses on the legal battles of the Mangrove Nine, about how they adopted novel tactics to help generate a favourable public image and the systemic racism that permeated the legal systems of the United Kingdom.

Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a leader of the British Black Panthers and one of the Mangrove Nine.

It’s a powerful piece of filmmaking, one that really resonates, and displays how the message of a film such as this is far more important than its structure. Because whilst the film is incredibly well made, with beautiful cinematography and stunning performances, it does little to deviate from the well-worn path of Courtroom Drama structure. We see the preceding events, the instigating event and then the trial, ending with the verdict. It’s simple but brilliant, because the most important aspect of Mangrove is its message, which it forefronts.

The same cannot be said for the Trial of the Chicago Seven, Aaron Sorkin’s latest offering, which allows its inventive structure to supersede its message. Given the events of this year, the release of this film couldn’t have come at a better time. In the wake of huge protests against police brutality and the injustice of law enforcement, a major motion picture about just that should have proven to be a cultural staple. But it didn’t, because of two things.

Members of the Chicago 7, from left to right Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). On the left, their lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).

First, the film suffers because it doesn’t forefront its message. Sorkin has crafted a well-structured and entertaining courtroom drama, with multiple flashbacks and diverging narratives, but all the spectacle kind of gets in the way. Between the stand-up comedy framing device that Sorkin uses to give the proceedings a comedic edge and the reliance on witness testimony to spark flashbacks, the film takes the viewer on a wild ride. But that’s not the point of the film. The point of the film is to highlight the injustices of the legal system.

Which leads on to the second reason why the Trial of the Chicago 7 is a less effective courtroom drama than Mangrove, authorial intent. The film is incredibly entertaining, but beyond that, its political message falls a little flat. Whether or not Sorkin hoped to aspire to the profound heights of political courtroom dramas such as To Kill A Mockingbird or Mangrove is unclear. However what is clear, is that he sought to entertain. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is good popcorn fare, but it doesn’t leave much of an impression in terms of message. In fact, parts of the film seem to be more of a reaction to the Trump era than a dissection of systemic injustice and police brutality. It’s a fun watch, but when noted Anarcho-Socialist Abbie Hoffman says “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, that right now are populated by some terrible people”, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The film is less concerned with the accurate portrayal of its political issues, and more concerned with creating well-structured sequences that resonate on first watch, but fade soon afterwards.

Abbie Hoffman

In fact, one of the most interesting and shocking aspects of the actual trial, the fabrication of the case against Bobby Seale and his subsequent mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement is side lined. His part is smaller, and whilst there is a particularly shocking scene in the third act where he is bound and gagged by bailiffs on the judges orders, it only serves to make the other scenes in the film seem less impactful. Whilst Mangrove is beautiful, moving and biting, the Trial of the Chicago 7 ends up being entertaining, spectacular but toothless.

It seems unfair to judge it so harshly, and when I first watched it, I did enjoy it. But after seeing Mangrove, which is a love letter to the community it portrays and a scathing indictment of the legal system that sought to destroy it, Sorkin’s film felt incredibly momentary. Steve McQueen understands the immortality of his films’ message, he feels no need to provide the audience with modern allegory because they are already there. The film reflects our current society by depicting a dark chapter in our past, a lesson we can continue to learn from. In five years time I could watch Mangrove again and still find it moving, impactful and incredibly telling. The Trial of the Chicago 7, despite the fact that it touches on the same subject matter as Mangrove, feels all too contemporary. This period in history will no doubt be marked by a slew of anti-Trump films and other media, statement pieces that reject his leadership. The problem being of course that police brutality is not a phenomenon of the Trump era, it’s a product of systemic racism and oppression that has existed for generations. Therefore, whilst Mangrove will remain relevant as long as racism is prevalent, the Trial of the Chicago 7 will lose its relevance, as we as a society continue to distance ourselves from the Trump era.

Both films are good, and contain interesting characters with excellently written dialogue. But the courtroom drama rests on the laurels of its message, and when that message becomes muddled by spectacle and a lack of focus, the film suffers as a result.

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