Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on that shocking ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ scene: ‘They can’t break your spirit’

Spoiler alert: The following discusses a key scene in Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and how the film plays out. Consider yourself warned if you haven’t seen it and want to go in completely cold.

In his research to play Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II came across a Seale quote he loved: “When you’re a revolutionary, they can’t break your spirit.”

Abdul-Mateen was able to showcase that unbreakable spirit in the most visceral scene in writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s new movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (streaming now on Netflix), one that disturbingly put the Emmy-winning actor (and Oscar hopeful) in chains to depict the oppressive racism of the late 1960s.

“As an actor, it was difficult to have to go through that re-enactment,” Abdul-Mateen says. “But it’s also my responsibility to tell that story with dignity.”

After a violent clash between Chicago police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, an infamous trial begins the next year with the organizers charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. Seale, however, was only in Chicago for four hours and not actively involved in the melee that day in ’68 but was nonetheless dragged in front of a jury by the Nixon administration to be the “scary” Black man. To make matters worse for him, Seale’s lawyer is in the hospital and Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) won’t let Seale represent himself in court.

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Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, left) is roughed up by court marshals in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

Seale learns in custody that his friend and fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has been shot and killed, and in court Seale angrily stands up and shouts that Hampton was “assassinated.” A tense conversation between defendant and judge leads to Seale cursing at Hoffman, who tells marshals to “take that defendant into a room and deal with him how he should be dealt with.” They gag Seale, shackle his hands and feet, then bring him back out in front of shocked onlookers and handcuff him to a table. The scene ends in a mistrial for Seale. 

“He wasn’t going to allow them to see any weakness or to see that he was broken in that moment. Ultimately that turns into a triumph for him when they are unable to break his spirit by giving him their worst,” Abdul-Mateen says. “I rooted myself in that idea and then I added some defiance to him as well. Even though he was silenced, he wouldn’t be ineffective.”

Abdul-Matten appreciates his co-stars and especially Sorkin making sure he was safe and that “I had everything that I needed to know to feel like Yahya never had his humanity in jeopardy.” Sorkin, though, reveals that he was “torn” by what to do at times, wanting to protect Adbul-Mateen but also not intrude on his process.

“Does he want to feel like he is surrounded by a bunch of white people in authority who keep shoving him into a chair and putting chains on him?” Sorkin remembers thinking. ”So I tried to balance it. He’s a grown man and he’s not shy. He’ll tell you what he needs, if he needs anything at all. With Yahya, honestly, you say, ‘Action’ and it happens.”

Eddie Redmayne, who plays Seale’s fellow defendant Tom Hayden, was impressed by Abdul-Mateen’s “power and presence” but witnessing that scene up close “was truly, truly shocking. Both watching your friend but also watching a Black man come in and being treated like that.”

And for co-star Jeremy Strong, who plays defendant Jerry Rubin, that moment takes on a double meaning: “You’re in the scene, but you’re also aware that this is not a story. This is symbolic of the kind of oppression that’s endemic in this country. I was sickened by it and also speechless.”

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