MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, protests in the streets, complaints about police violence and other injustices, divisive politics, rifts between friends and even families over the politics of the moment. No, we're not talking about 2020. We're talking about the 1960s, when protests over the Vietnam War and other grievances sent demonstrators into the streets, including at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where a law enforcement crackdown left hundreds of people hurt and hundreds more arrested.
Months later, under a new administration led by Richard Nixon, a grand jury indicted a group of protest leaders with conspiracy to incite a riot. Their infamous months-long trial became a cultural landmark. And now it's the subject of a new movie written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. It's called "The Trial Of The Chicago 7."
But there were actually eight people on trial initially. The eighth defendant was Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. We spoke with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Seale in the film. He told us he knew about Seale from growing up in Oakland, Calif., where the Black Panthers began, but that it was only after he was offered the role that he really began to appreciate Seale's character.
YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: It began to take on more meaning for me once I went and I looked up interviews with Bobby Seale. And I really learned or started to get an idea for the dignity that this man had and about how he was robbed of his dignity during that trial.
And I wanted to do two things with this role. I wanted to represent for Oakland, and I wanted to advocate for Bobby Seale and for his experience, the experience that he had in this trial. And I knew that if I could step into those shoes, and if I could go through that humiliation - that brutalization, as Bobby Seale would call it - and if I could go through that and portray a victory as opposed to a defeat, then I felt like I would be doing a good job.
MARTIN: Let me amplify some of the things that you're talking about here. I just want to point out that several of the people who were put on trial together didn't even know each other. Bobby Seale was the only Black defendant on the trial in Chicago. And the film points out something that a lot of people at the time also believed, which is that he was lumped in with the other activists as kind of a dog whistle to the jury.
But the film also points out that the judge demonstrated a sort of a blatant disgust and bias against the defendants. But Bobby Seale got the worst of it. He refused to delay the trial, even though Seale's lawyer had just had emergency gallbladder surgery and couldn't be present. And every time Seale tried to bring this up, the judge, Julius Hoffman, would shoot him down.
And I just want to play a short clip. Here's - this is you, obviously, and then there's Julius Hoffman, who's played by Frank Langella.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7")
FRANK LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) Would the defense like to cross-examine the witness?
ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Bobby Seale) Yes. I'm sitting here saying that I would like to cross-examine a witness.
LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) Only lawyers can address a witness.
ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Bobby Seale) My lawyer is Charles Garry.
LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) I'm tired of hearing that.
ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Bobby Seale) Couldn't care less what you're tired of.
LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) What did you say?
ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Bobby Seale) I said it would be impossible for me to care any less what you are tired of, and I demand to cross-examine the witness.
LANGELLA: (As Julius Hoffman) Sit in your chair and be quiet, and don't ever address this court in that manner again.
MARTIN: But, you know, obviously, the movie version of these events is dramatized, but the basic facts, especially about Seale's treatment, are actually worse. I mean, at one point, the judge was fed up with Seale's attempts to ask for a fair trial - in fact, his own lawyer to be there, which is his right - had him bound and gagged in the courtroom.
MARTIN: And in the film, this leads to an immediate mistrial in Seale's case specifically. But in reality, he was actually left bound and gagged for three days.
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask how you thought about that. Like, how did you think about how to present Seale and all the complexity of what he was dealing with at that time?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah. Well, Bobby Seale - I think the best piece of information that I got from my researching him was a quote, you know, when he was in prison during this case. And he says, when you're a revolutionary, they can't break your spirit. You know, and he also knew that whatever they threw at him would be the worst thing that they could imagine.
So he talks about having the type of psychology where you understand your oppressor to the degree that whatever they throw at you, you have to understand that they're only doing the things that they're afraid to have done to them so that when you persevere through that, it makes them afraid, and they stand back in amazement at how you're able to withstand something that they could never, you know, be able to put themselves through.
So I tried to really arm myself with the idea that as a Black man, as a representative of myself, my people, my manhood, my dignity, that I would protect those things at all costs. And I wouldn't allow someone else to dehumanize me. You know, they may inflict pain or harm upon my body, but they won't be able to take my humanity.
And, in fact, I think it could also potentially be argued that Bobby Seale goaded the judge into silencing him in that violent way, you know, and that that was a powerful move by Bobby Seale, by outsmarting the judge, by outsmarting his oppressor. And he did it by speaking out in court, by being disruptive, by demanding justice, by demanding the rights that are afforded to him through the Constitution.
And I think there's a - you know, there's a lesson to be learned about that - about, one, being educated about your own circumstances, being educated about the law. But then also the follow-up is when you have the courage to stand up and speak through your conviction and to put yourself in the way of the consequences, I believe.
MARTIN: You know, the script really invites comparisons to the current moment, when law enforcement violence against Black and brown people is a subject that is once again kind of in front of the country and not just in front of the people who are directly experiencing it. And the people who are in the streets now are very diverse. And there's a lot of talk about that. Like, is that the right thing? Like, who should be leading? And I'm just - I was just interested in your thoughts about that and how you thought about it.
ABDUL-MATEEN: I think if you look at 1968, and you look at right now - even if you look at what's going on over in Nigeria right now - it's police overstepping their boundaries. And it's - grows to the level that no one can ignore it. You know, we have a - there's a refrain in the film that says, the whole world is watching. And I think that's one of the things that is causing, you know, all of the allies to come out now.
And I think allyship is very important. You know, I think everybody has a role in the revolution, so to speak. I think when it comes to allyship, you know, it's very, very important to understand that if you want a role in the movement, then it's not going to always look the same.
You know, just speaking of allyship and bringing it back to the film, Sacha was one of my biggest allies on the movies - Sacha Baron Cohen. You know, during the moments where I had to go into the back and reenact the bound and gagged scene, you know, he didn't have to, but he came in the back - just being there, being supportive, saying, hey, do you need anything? Is that too tight? Are you comfortable? You don't have to do this if you don't want to. You know, if you don't want to do another take, make sure that you speak up. If you're not comfortable speaking up, I'll do it for you.
You know, and that's a certain type of relationship that's equally important as being out there on the front line saying Black Lives Matter.
MARTIN: Along those lines and sort of just to - as we kind of wind up here, you know, the other similarity between then and now is the different opinions about the most effective way to achieve change, even among those who have the same goal. And I was interested in your thoughts as an artist about that. I mean, how do you see your role right now? It's particularly, I think, interesting because so - there's so much discussion now about particularly people who have a platform.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: What should they be doing with it?
ABDUL-MATEEN: Well, I think now - I had a conversation with a good friend about this a couple of months ago. He's a professor of African American studies at Harvard. And we were talking about who the leaders are today versus who the leaders were in 1968.
You know, and a lot of times, the job of celebrity was to give a platform to the scholars (laughter). You know, it was to provide a platform to the scholars who actually - who made it their life's work to study these issues and to give voice to these issues - scholars, the ministers, community leaders. Celebrity is very interesting these days because everyone with a phone has a platform. It's just - it just becomes a matter of how much exposure your platform can get.
And so I think that we definitely need to make sure that at the same time that we're bringing our numbers and our faces and our fans to the table that we also include the scholars. We also include the people who have made it their life's work to study these issues and to study history so that they can, you know, guide us and tell us where we have been and where we're likely, you know, going to go.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, I want to congratulate you on your recent Emmy for your role...
ABDUL-MATEEN: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: ...In "Watchmen." What's next for you?
ABDUL-MATEEN: (Laughter) Next for me is a break. I'm finishing "The Matrix," hopefully soon. And I'm going to go back to New York, set up an apartment and sort of live a life for about half a year - that's really what I'm looking forward to doing - and then start to ask questions about what's next professionally.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, that's great. Well, congratulations - I'm sure well-deserved.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is an Emmy Award-winning actor and one of the stars in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7," which is out now on Netflix.
Thank you so much for talking with us.
ABDUL-MATEEN: Thank you. I appreciate you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAR MY VOICE")
CELESTE: (Singing) Hear my voice.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.