Monday, July 27, 2009

Overlooked DVD of the month - CHICAGO 10

Brett Morgan has a knack for making funny, insightful documentaries about colourful historical figures. Half his genius is picking characters that have a finely tuned sense of theatrics: the other half of his genius is in bringing that to a modern audience with a sense of flair and energy. In his bio-doc of Robert Evans, legendary Hollywood producer and ladies man, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, Morgan used photo-montage and memoir. In CHICAGO 10, Morgan mixes vintage news-footage, animated court-room recreations, contemporary interviews and simulated stand-up. The sound-track mixes contemporary protest music with Eminem and the Beastie Boys. The resulting documentary is very funny, often surreal, and brings home the gravity and high stakes of the American civil rights and anti-war movement of the late 1960s.

The story is simple. In 1968, the American counter-culture movement is fuming about the escalation of the war in Vietnam. They plan to come to Chicago and lobby the Democratic National Convention. The movement coalesces around the Yippie movement led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and the Black Panthers led by Bobby Seale. Mayor/Boss Daley sets the pigs onto the protestors: Communist conspiracies "justify" disproportionate police brutality. The Chicago 8 are brought to trial. The documentary basically dramatises court records and puts them in context. The Chicago 7 come across as witty, intelligent and radical, but not unreasonable. The gagging of Bobby Seale, and the severance of his trial from the group trial seems like an act of pure and brutal racism. It's shocking to modern eyes. Hank Azaria is simply brilliant as Abbie Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright is powerful as Bobby Seale .(The final two members of the 10 are the two lawyers).

Watching the movie today I was shamed by how active and passionate these kids were and how bland and anaemic the anti Iraqi war protests were. But I was also massively entertained. It's just FUN to see Hoffman skewering the judge, or the defense attorney asking if an undercover cop was hurt by a jumper. And so Brett Morgan achieves the rarest of rare things: he makes a movie that is important and entertaining: and a documentary that actually deserves to be seen on the big screen.

CHICAGO 10 played Sundance 2007 and opened in the US and UK in Spring 2008.

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