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How Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Learned to Identify with Bobby Seale for ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

In his most prominent film role to date, the actor discusses his approach to embodying the Black Panther leader in Aaron Sorkin's acclaimed courtroom drama.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (L to R) KELVIN HARRISON JR. as Fred Hampton, YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II as Bobby Seale, MARK RYLANCE as William Kuntsler in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

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Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” follows eight men who protested the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Months after the convention, a new administration led by President Richard Nixon charged the men with crossing state lines with the intent to incite riots. The infamous, months-long trial became known as the trial of the Chicago 7 — but initially, there was an eighth defendant.

That was Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, portrayed in Sorkin’s film by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and his courtroom experience was far worse than any of his peers. As the sole Black defendant, Seale was treated by judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) with unmistakable prejudice, including a disturbing moment when he ordered Seale to be bound, gagged and shackled to his chair.

Less than five years after graduating from Yale School of Drama in 2016, Abdul-Mateen’s career is on a roll. He belongs to a class of versatile thirtysomething Black actors who are enjoying the kinds of careers that escaped their predecessors — Jonathan Majors, Kelvin Harrison Jr., LaKeith Stanfield, Jovan Adepo, Aldis Hodge, and John David Washington among them. The 34-year-old Abdul-Mateen will next be seen in high profile studio titles including Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” update, produced by Jordan Peele; the next film in “The Matrix” franchise, directed by Lana Wachowski; and the action-thriller “Ambulance,” directed by Michael Bay.

For now, however, his “Chicago 7” role encapsulates the kind of risky, powerful screen presence unique to his talent. Abdul-Mateen said he approached the challenge of playing Seale during the controversial trial by figuring out how to foreground his dignity during that harrowing experience.

“I believe that every real good story is a love story, no matter what the story is, and I set it up in a way that my characters have to be in love with a thing, or a person, or an ideal,” said Abdul-Mateen, who won an Emmy last year for his work on “Watchmen,” and now finds himself in Oscar contention for playing Seale. “Along that way, a good story will try to take that thing from him. So, in my mind, this was a love story about the love of humanity and dignity in oneself. That’s what I set out to preserve and to protect as I created this character.”

Bobby Seale addresses a class in urban development at Laney College in Oakland on May 11, 1973 in his bid to become the mayor of Oakland. Oakland voters go to the polls on May 15 to decide between Seale and Reading in a runoff election. (AP Photo/)Richard Drew)

Bobby Seale

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Seale had not participated in any advance planning for the convention demonstration, but was arrested and tried with the other seven, serving as a kind of symbol of racial unrest. His lawyer was unavailable due to hospitalization for gall bladder surgery, and the judge denied him both a continuance and self-representation. In response, Seale verbally lashed out, interrupting the proceedings — and in an extraordinary move, Hoffman ordered Seale bound, gagged, and chained to his chair for three days of the trial. To prepare for the physical and emotional turmoil of that scene, Abdul-Mateen studied Seale’s past interviews to understand how the man endured such brutal treatment during the trial.

“I watched an interview in which [Seale] talked about how your oppressor will do things to you that he’s terrified of should they be done to him,” Abdul-Mateen said. “And the only way to conquer that is not to show any fear, so that no matter what he does, you’re not affected, and then you become something that he is afraid of, which gives you power over him. That was really how I approached it, to not be defeated in that moment, and instead hold onto my humanity, and make sure that Bobby was never depicted as a victim. I felt that responsibility.”

The actor also relied on conversations with family members who were alive at the time of the trial and understood the gravity of the situation. The script, which turned on courtroom transcripts, helped him feel comfortable with settling into a sense of authenticity. “Aaron made it a point of using Bobby Seale’s words in the court,” said Abdul-Mateen. “I tried to make sure that most of what I was saying and doing came from reality, and then I just rooted my work in a real cause, having a voice and being connected to my own humanity.”

The film acknowledges a key development, even as it keeps it off-screen: The brutal murder of Black Panther leader and Seale colleague Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who was shot by police officers while Seale was on trial, leaving him angry and anguished.

“Bobby’s just trying to keep himself composed in court, but the truth was, underneath it all, he was shaken by Hampton’s the death,” Abdul-Mateen said. “A lot of my performance is about showing his restraint initially. And then there’s the outburst, because he just couldn’t take the injustice in the courtroom anymore.”

It didn’t last much longer than that: Seale’s trial was severed from the rest of the Chicago 7 on November 5, 1969.

Abdul-Mateen was well aware of the barbaric treatment Seale endured during his infamous trial, but actually reenacting Seale’s experiences drummed up a lot of different emotions. “It’s my history, and that brings up a lot of different feelings,” he said. “You can’t help but feel angry, sometimes absolutely horrified, and totally distressed, that this happened not so long ago in an American courtroom.”

The actor chose not to meet with the real-life Black Panther leader in preparation for the role, instead choosing to infuse his own experience as a Black man in America — unfairly targeted and historically marginalized — into his portrait of Seale. “In a lot of ways, I was combining my own life with Bobby Seale’s struggles, in order to tell the story of a kind of shared experience of having the government and other powerful figures, given the legal authority to use brute force to keep you compliant.”

When Seale was shackled in court — an experience with connotations going back to the days of slavery —  Sorkin frequently checked in on the actor to make sure he was comfortable, much as the characters do in the scene. Abdul-Mateen said that there was plenty of discussion onset about his own discomfort might transfer to the audience. To that end, Abdul-Mateen said, he welcomed the feeling of discomfort that wormed its way around the room.

“Aaron would ask me if I wanted to take a break, and I would say, ‘No, I’m good, let’s go on to the next take’,” the actor said. “But I think Aaron did an incredible job of making sure that it was I was safe, and that I had everything that I needed in order to physically and mentally prepare myself for my scenes.” The result is a disturbing passage that ultimately becomes the film’s emotional center as the defendants wake up the dark reality of their situation.

Sorkin began developing the project 20 years ago (it stalled over the years for a variety of reasons), but “The Trial of the Chicago 7” feels like it was made for this particular political moment in time in America. The riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which began as a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War — and escalated largely as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement — have particular resonance in 2021, following nationwide racial justice protests in light of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others before them.

That resonance was not lost on Abdul-Mateen. “If you look at what happened in 1968, and you look at what’s happening right now, you see police officers being given the authority to overstep legal and ethical boundaries,” he said. “Not that this is anything new, but I think because we all are walking around with cameras in our phones, we are seeing everything happen, and it’s at a point where we can no longer ignore it. One the film’s themes is that the whole world is watching, and I think that’s true now more than ever.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is now streaming on Netflix.

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