Shaka King disagreed “a little” with Aaron Sorkin tonight on the amount of artistic license filmmakers should take when dealing with historical figures and events. His remarks came during WGA West Beyond Words virtual roundtable, which featured nominees at this year’s WGA Awards for Best Original and Adapted Screenplays. Their exploration of truth versus correctness was fascinating and utterly respectful and friendly.
Sorkin’s film, The Chicago 7 trialand King’s Judas and the Black Messiah share a common character: Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was shot dead by police in 1969 during a pre-dawn raid on his Chicago apartment. Hampton is the central figure in King’s film and plays a small but important role – as Bobby Seale’s audience advisor – in Sorkin.
WGA West launches ‘Deal Hub’ detailing median film and TV price to help writers ‘make the best deals possible’
“For me, The Chicago Seven is a painting; it’s not a photograph, ”Sorkin said. “It’s not journalism. This is another thing. It’s art. Which doesn’t give you permission to pervert the story… Accuracy is very important in journalism; not as important for art. For example, Bobby Seale is tied up and gagged in the courtroom. It’s a big moment in the movie; it was a great moment in American history that it happened in a courtroom. The back-fourth between Bobby and the judge comes straight from the (trial) transcript – it’s one of the few moments in the movie where I just didn’t want to mess up the transcript. However, in real life, he sat in the courtroom for four days, tied up and gagged. While in the movie, I immediately ask the prosecutor to ask the judge to separate Bobby and quash the trial.
“The truth of the day,” Sorkin said, “is still here: it happened to Bobby. Bobby showed real courage in standing up to the judge. It happened. The truth is there. Is it correct? No, it lasted four days, not five minutes. I’m sure Shaka made those kinds of decisions all the time.
“I think it’s subjective,” King said. “I probably disagree with Aaron a bit, just because it definitely raises the level when you involve family members. Our concept of the public domain has changed dramatically. I mean, you don’t have a choice when details that you, as a playwright, might find trivial, but which have really significant consequences for the people who survived this traumatic experience. And so there were some things that you just couldn’t change, couldn’t change, because they would have done Fred Hampton Jr. huge harm ”
“It’s up to the writer,” he said. “Hearing Aaron talk about that scene with Bobby Seale, and how he reduced it from four days to five minutes – it’s probably something I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing, just because it’s the difference between torture and a really fucked up moment, you know? So I think it depends.
“Shaka, I hear you,” Sorkin said, “I would certainly respect the wishes of a surviving family member from a murder like this. It comes down to truth and accuracy: I think the fact that he was tortured is dramatized in the film. We take very close shots of the chains unrolling, of the gag coming in. I think the truth about this moment is there. And for what it’s worth, so does Bobby.
“Everything is subjective,” King replied. “I understand the difference between truth and accuracy. I mean, we had to eliminate Richard Daley (the infamous mayor of Chicago) from our movie, which played a huge role in the (Hampton) assassination. In elimination, you can also end up reversing the truth. So it’s subjective at the end of the day.
Noting that there were scenes in the movie that Fred Hampton Jr. originally approved of and then later regretted giving the go-ahead, King said, “We’re comfortable with the decisions we make. made, but they weren’t comfortable decisions.
Other panelists for the original screenplay included Will Berson, co-writer of Judas and the Black Messiah; Darius Marder and Abraham Marder (Sound of metal); and Andy Siara (Palm springs).
In a second panel, featuring the WGA nominees for Best-Fit Screenplay, panelists included the ever-entertaining Sacha Baron Cohen (Next movie Borat), who also played a leading role in The Chicago 7 trial; Ramin Bahrani (The white tiger); Paul Greengrass (World news); Kemp powers (One night in Miami); and Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Ma Rainey’s black background).
Kelly Robb contributed to this report.