Shaka King disagreed “a bit” with Aaron Sorkin tonight about how much artistic license filmmakers should take when dealing with historic characters and events. His remarks came during the WGA West’s Beyond Words virtual panel discussion, which featured this year’s WGA Awards nominees for best original and adapted screenplays. Their exploration of truth vs. accuracy was fascinating and altogether respectful and friendly.
Sorkin’s film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and King’s Judas and The Black Messiah share a common character: Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was gunned down by police in 1969 during a pre-dawn raid at his apartment in Chicago. Hampton is the central figure in King’s film, and plays a small but important role – as Bobby Seale’s courtroom advisor – in Sorkin’s.
“For me, The Chicago Seven is a painting; it’s not a photograph,” Sorkin said. “It’s not a piece of journalism. It’s something else. It’s art. Which does not give you permission to pervert history…Accuracy is something very important to journalism; not as important to art. For instance, Bobby Seale gets bound and gagged in the courtroom. It’s a big moment in the film; it’s a big moment in American history that that happened in a courtroom. The back-and-fourth between Bobby and the judge is directly from the (trial) transcript – it’s one of the few moments in the film where I just didn’t want to mess with the transcript at all. However, in real life, he sat in the courtroom for four days, bound and gagged. Whereas I, in the film, immediately have the prosecutor ask the judge for Bobby to be separated and have a mistrial.”
“The truth of the moment,” Sorkin said, “is still there: that happened to Bobby. Bobby showed true courage in standing up to the judge. That happened. The truth is there. Is it accurate? No. It lasted four days and not five minutes. I’m sure Shaka was making those kinds of decisions all the time.”
“I think it’s subjective,” King said. “I probably disagree a bit with Aaron, just because it definitely ratchets up the level when you get the family members involved. Our concept of public domain has changed significantly. I mean, you don’t have a choice when details that you, as a dramatist, might find innocuous, but have really major consequences for the folks who survived this traumatic experience. And so there were certain things that you just could not alter, could not change, because they would have done tremendous harm to Fred Hampton Jr.”
“It’s up to the writer,” he said. “Hearing Aaron talk about that scene with Bobby Seale, and how he reduced four days to five minutes – that’s probably something I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing, just because that’s the difference between torture and a moment that’s really fucked up, you know? So I think it just depends.”
“Shaka, I hear you,” Sorkin said, “I certainly wouldn’t disrespect the wishes of a surviving family member of a murder like that. This is back to truth and accuracy: I do think that the fact that he was tortured is dramatized in the film. We do very tight shots of the shackles going on, of the gag going in. I think the truth of that moment is there. And for what it’s worth, so does Bobby.”
“It’s all subjective,” King responded. “I understand the difference between truth and accuracy. I mean, we had to eliminate Richard Daley (the infamous mayor of Chicago) from our movie, who played a tremendous role in the assassination (of Hampton). In elimination, you can also end up subverting the truth. So it’s subjective, ultimately.”
Noting that there were scenes in the film that Fred Hampton Jr. originally approved, and then later regretted having greenlighted, King said: “We’re comfortable with the decisions we made, but they were not comfortable decisions.”
Other original screenplay panelists included Will Berson, co-writer of Judas and the Black Messiah; Darius Marder & Abraham Marder (Sound of Metal); and Andy Siara (Palm Springs).
In a second panel, featuring the WGA’s nominees for best adapted screenplay, panelists included the always amusing Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), who also had a starring role in The Trial of the Chicago 7; Ramin Bahrani (The White Tiger); Paul Greengrass (News of the World); Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami); and Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).
Kelly Robb contributed to this report.