Real Life Protests Fuel 'The Glorias' And 'The Trial Of The Chicago 7'
Feminism and sixties' counterculture revolution are at heart of new films
Julie Taymor tackles Gloria Steinem's life in "The Glorias" and Aaron Sorkin looks to the legal fallout from protests in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
As the U.S. witnesses a wave of social unrest while a pandemic keeps many at home, it seems fitting to revisit a time in history when protest seemed a nightly news item. Looking back on the sixties and seventies allows for both hindsight but also to find a new resonance as we realize that some of the gains won are in danger of being lost. We also see that some of the issues that sparked protest back then are still unresolved are they're causing unrest once again.
We'll start with the better of the two films.
Julie Taymor is a wildly talented and inspired director with such audacious films as "Titus," "The Tempest," and "Frida" to her credit. When she took on adapting Gloria Steinem's memoir "My Life on the Road," she did so not wanting to make a standard biopic. Steinem's book was not a strict autobiography but rather a collection of encounters with people, places, and ideas that ended up shaping the activist's life.
Taymor is the perfect director for crafting a non-traditional biography that conveys more of an impression of a life than facts and a chronological order. But despite some flights of fancy and the fact that different aged Glorias all share a bus together, the film does stick remarkably close to the truth of what happened.
"The Glorias" is not about Steinem's private life in terms of her relationships with men or her marriage. It is about things that shaped her life and made her the activist and feminist she became. Gloria is played by four actresses at key times in her life: as a child by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, as a teen by Lulu Wilson, in her 20s and 30s by Alicia Vikander, and in her 40s by Julianne Moore. There is a brief appearance by the real Steinem as herself at the end.
There is an emphasis on her early life and the influence both her father (Timothy Hutton), who gave her a love for travel and adventure, and her mother (Enid Graham in an exceptional performance), whose inability to fulfill her own dreams of journalism inspired her daughter.
We also see her going to India where she's moved by stories from women about abuse and lack of rights, and where she is influenced by Gandhi. She also meets Black women (one anonymously in a crowd at the Washington march and others who became lifelong friends) who gave her insights into what minority women faced in the U.S. We also see how she faced sexism at the workplace and how that eventually drove her and fellow feminists to start their own magazine Ms.
The film has wonderful flights of creative fancy. Taymor captures the times she depicts well and reminds us what that surge of protest for women's rights felt like. The film also serves as a good reminder of how recently women had to fight for reproductive rights and equality in the workplace, and how those battles continue today.
One of the film's most satisfying creative moments comes when a smarmy male interviewer asks Steinem on TV about why she dresses so sexy, adding, “I hope you forgive our masculine notion that you’re an absolutely stunning sex object.” The film cuts to a "Wizard of Oz" like a tornado of imagery manifesting all the sexism Steinem has had to face and witness and all the anger she feels about it and then returning to her calm on-camera response. It's a wonderful way to capture the emotion and present a clever and visually dynamic scene.
The film's arrival seems oddly fitting just it comes on the heels of conservative Amy Coney Barrett being nominated to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of gender equality, on the Supreme Court. Hopefully, the film can remind people that the rights women like Steinem and others fought for can be impacted if the high court becomes strongly conservative. It is also a reminder of both how far we have come and how far we still need to go.
"The Glorias" is currently available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video.
'The Trial of the Chicago 7'
Aaron Sorkin's "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is not as creatively clever nor as factually accurate as Taymor's "The Glorias" but it too is a potent reminder of a chapter in history that resonates exceedingly well right now. It's a story that also allows Sorkin to do what he loves — create cracking, rapid-fire dialogue for people who feel passionately about issues.
The film looks to the famous or perhaps infamous (depending on your point of view and how much of a circus you thought the proceedings became) case of a group of men arrested and put on trial for conspiring to incite the riot that broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The seven men were Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, who feels miscast here), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins). The eighth was Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He was the leader of the Black Panther Party, who would eventually be pulled out of that trial and tried separately.
In the movie, we revisit the riots of 1968. We're reminded of the role the police played and how a judge can bias a case. We witness how the government was guilty of its own conspiracy to silence the radical left. These are all worthy things as America faces new social unrest over some of the same issues. We just don't have a draft and a war as the catalyst this time.
Sorkin is first and foremost a writer and he only directs as a means of giving his words a better platform to be heard from. The film is highly entertaining and also has moments that hit home with outrage, mostly from watching archival footage of actual police brutality during the riots and the judge's horrific treatment of Bobby Seale in court. He literally had him chained up and gagged.
The film revels in the differences between the men on trial, from the antics of Hoffman and Rubin to the seriousness of Hayden to the anti-violence of Dellinger and finally the outrage of Seale. Sorkin orchestrates the facts to fit his narrative. There are some real pieces of testimony that might have been better than his manufactured ones. And so long as you look at this more as entertainment than history, it's an energizing introduction to the anarchy, idealism, hope and outrage of the 1960s.
As someone born in 1960 and who grew up with protest on the nightly news, in the music, and in movies, I appreciated how the film caught some of that energy, passion and idealism. But Sorkin does play it out in a bit of a formulaic manner and kind of softens the government prosecutor played by the likable Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But the film looks to the role of protest and the government's reaction to it in a way that is enlightening as we face new protests now.