clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II calls ‘Chicago 7’ role as Bobby Seale a ‘mirror’ to the current world

The history of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale’s time in Chicago and his prosecution was new to the “Watchmen” actor.

Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. (from left) as Fred Hampton, Yayha Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, and Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Netflix

Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II heard all about the Black Panther Party when he was growing up in Oakland, but he knew very little about the role — or lack thereof — that Bobby Seale, the organization’s co-founder, played in one of the most memorable court cases of the 1960s.

He knew he had his work cut out for him as he prepared to play Seale in writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s film “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which opens Friday at Chicago theaters and arrives Oct. 16 on Netflix .

“I knew nothing about the Chicago 7. I’d heard Bobby Seale himself speak when was I younger. I knew that obviously, at some point, there was a trial where he was bound and gagged and treated unjustly, but I didn’t know the history of that specific trial. This is what I learned when the dots started to connect on this project.”

The Chicago 7, who were accused of inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, consisted of Seale, David Dellinger of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden of MOBE and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party (Yippies), and Northwestern University PhD student Lee Weiner.

An Aug. 28 rally in Grant Park had devolved into a riot as thousands of protesters were beaten and teargassed by Chicago police officers, while protesters threw rocks and bottles at police officers.

Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale speaks at a Gary, Indiana, high school in 1972.
Sun-Times file

Seale did not know the other defendants at the trial, which took place in 1969. He was outspoken during the proceedings, demanding they be postponed so that his attorney could be present.

After Seale’s repeated outbursts, Federal Judge Julius Hoffman ordered he be bound and gagged for several days during the trial. The court sketches of Seale were a watershed moment during the trial. It was later revealed that Seale had not participated in the unrest that led to the riots at the convention.

While preparing for the role, Abdul-Mateen II did not meet Seale but studied the court sketch and read Seale’s book “A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale.”

“It’s hard to believe that was a real thing and feels like something that could only have taken place in fiction,” said Abdul-Mateen II. “The way that he was mistreated, as he [Seale] said, brutalized, it was both shocking and unsurprising at the same time, just given the history of this country in the treatment toward Blacks, specifically.”

Only five of the “7” were convicted of inciting a riot, but Judge Hoffman imposed prison terms on each of the defendants for contempt of court. In later proceedings, the sanctions were overturned.

But Seale — the only Black defendant — bore the brunt of the criminal justice system as he was imprisoned during the trial on a warrant related to the murder of a fellow Black Panther.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II won an Emmy on Sunday for his work as Cal Abar on “Watchmen.”
HBO

Abdul-Mateen II has recognized themes of similar injustice in the current social unrest.

“You can hold that [1969] world up to ours and it will be a mirror; it’s sad,” said the actor, who on Sunday won an Emmy for his work on “Watchmen,” the HBO series pulsing with racial tension. “We’ve seen comforts that allude to progress, right? But then when you look at it, when you back up and you look at the state of the world, it shows that there’s a lot that has not changed, and, in fact, the powers that be are still holding on very vehemently to make sure that those structures stay in place.”

Abdul-Mateen II has spent a lot of time in Chicago shooting the Netflix film and the upcoming “Candyman” sequel/reboot, in which he plays an artist who grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects.

“Chicago was beautiful. They’re beautiful people there — diversity of thought and entrepreneurial spirit, man,” said Abdul-Mateen II. “Everybody got a business, and I’m not saying a ‘hustle’ — everybody got a business.”

He also says that the film, which was postponed from Jun. 12 to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is better seen in a communal movie theater setting instead of online streaming.

“I think that’s a good thing if we can do it in a safe way,” said Abdul-Mateen II. “Black horror movies are really a community experience … and I think we wanted to make a movie that we thought deserved to be experienced in the same way.”