The Summer Movie Season’s Unlikely Superheroes Are the ACLU Lawyers in 'The Fight'

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Filmmakers Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres followed a group of civil rights attorneys for three years to document the organization’s historic battles with the Trump administration.

Thanks to the pandemic, 2020 is a summer without a superhero movie. But a new documentary about the American Civil Liberties Union, The Fight, which Magnolia and Topic Studios are releasing in theaters and on demand July 31, offers up a kind of alternative, a real-life Avengers starring a group of lovably nerdy civil rights attorneys. Directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, who made the 2016 political documentary Weiner, and produced by Kerry Washington, The Fight follows ACLU attorneys Brigitte Amiri, Joshua Block, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho and  Chase Strangio as they pursue high-stakes cases on reproductive, LGBT, immigrant and voting rights.

Shot over the course of three years, The Fight follows the attorneys as they meet with vulnerable clients, prepare to argue in the Supreme Court and juggle work and family demands. Steinberg and Despres spoke with THR about how they secured access to the ACLU and turned their demoralization about Donald Trump’s election into a feel-good movie about some surprisingly cinematic lawyers.

When this movie starts, in January 2017, we're on the steps of a courthouse in New York as a federal judge grants the ACLU’s request for an injunction under President Trump’s new Muslim ban, and crowds are cheering wildly for ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt. This is the moment that sparked you to make The Fight. Why?

Steinberg: I was there when Lee emerged from the court steps. And I could just see that expression on his face, that joy and exhaustion, and just total shock that there were these crowds of people chanting “ACLU,” and I was one of them. I felt like, "Okay, this needs to be documented. We need to be with the lawyers at the ACLU. We need to be by their side, filming their fight against the Trump administration's attack on civil liberties."

Despres: The next day, Elyse kicked down our office door, and we have this whiteboard, where we write down film ideas, potential projects, and she wiped it clean and wrote "The Fight" in huge letters, and said, "We're going to get inside the ACLU and tell the stories of the lawyers on the ground fighting the Trump administration." Josh and I sort of looked at each other and said, "Yeah, okay. That's what we have to do." But the next thing that happened was we said, "Wait, lawyers?"

I imagined that we were going to have 90 minutes of people typing and reading, separated with some Latin. But, Dale in the film has a line, "There are a lot more tattoos and piercings at the ACLU than at the Department of Justice." And that's true. These are not your Brooks Brothers lawyers. They have this visceral spark. So when we saw that this was going to be an action movie, a legal thriller, we were all in. And then three years disappeared.

How did you get the ACLU’s participation?

Steinberg: After that night on the court steps, I was like, "Okay, who do I know at the ACLU?" I have a friend who is a law professor and a legal correspondent in D.C., Kate Shaw. She said, "Oh, I know Lee, I'll be happy to send an email on your behalf." Lee said, "Okay, let's talk. I'll let you have a meeting with some of the deciders at the ACLU national office."

We went down there, and we presented our vision to them. We said, "Look, we're vérité documentary filmmakers. What we want is total access. We want to be inside, documenting all the twists and turns of your legal fight against the Trump administration. And we want to be with the lawyers in their homes, in the hallways." They said, "We love your vision. We love your enthusiasm. We really appreciate it, but there's no way you will ever make a documentary about the ACLU."

They had some reservations, their lawyers, this whole building of lawyers, many floors of them... What if they lost their case, or how would that look if we filmed them doing that? But they realized that it didn't matter. What mattered was getting the story told.

I assume an organization devoted to free speech understood the need for you to have final cut, but how did you negotiate that while also preserving the privacy of their clients?

Steinberg: We had total editorial independence, and the ground rule was you could kick us out at any time, and they did.

How did you choose which cases and which attorneys to focus on?

Despres: It was kind of a no-brainer. These cases are at the center of American conflict right now, and these attorneys are scintillating. Reproductive rights, voting rights, LGBT rights and immigrant rights. These lawyers are quirky, and they're fun to watch. And they are, by virtue of their profession, natural storytellers. They're all raconteurs and fun to listen to. And they all wear their hearts on their sleeves. It's deeply, deeply personal for them, and you can see that on screen. It just pours off them.

How did you approach the dilemma that you wouldn't be able to film inside courtrooms?

Despres: That was an exciting challenge in some ways. We worked with Arvid Steen, who's a brilliant animator. You’re able to place a camera wherever you want and take whatever lens you want, through the animations, and dial up or down the level of detail on the screen. There's some wonderful things about drawn scenes in a courtroom, where you can really bring the audience's attention where you want it. The downside is there's one story in particular that took place almost entirely in the courtroom, and we ended up not using it in the film. This was Dale Ho fighting [former Kansas Secretary of State] Kris Kobach’s voter suppression efforts in Kansas. If cameras were allowed in courtrooms, audiences would be seeing that story dramatized on screen, and it would be a net benefit. First of all, it was hella entertaining. And secondly, it's good for democracy to have a little bit of sunlight there, but it was just too big a lift.

The ACLU helped the organizers of the 2017 Charlottesville neo Nazi rally go forward with their event by arguing for their first amendment rights. The ACLU’s participation, already controversial, only got more so when the rally turned violent and a woman died. You were already shooting the film when the rally happened, and you cover some of the debate within the organization. How did it feel from the inside?

Steinberg: We were following our lawyers and their cases that were unrelated to Charlottesville. Just as they were going on in their cases, Charlottesville happened. And it was just this gut-punch of a moment, for our lawyers and for the ACLU. There were a lot of painful discussions, a lot of debate about Charlottesville, about the events. [ACLU deputy legal director] Jeffrey Robinson and [ACLU national legal director] David Cole really were the representatives, the two different sides of the conversation, in the film. Sometimes these debates that you have about First Amendment absolutists feel very abstract. They're not abstract at all. They're very real. These fights are personal and big, and there are real people behind them, and we wanted to show that.

What is it like releasing this film during the pandemic? This is a very different world than it was when you sold the film at Sundance.

Steinberg: In terms of the moment we are in politically, I feel like our film is more relevant than ever. We felt pretty demoralized after Trump was elected and hopeless and sort of felt like, what can we do and what as filmmakers should we do? In making this movie, we got to watch everyday people try to fight back, try to fight for justice. We saw that in some of these Supreme Court decisions, that sometimes you do fight back and you win. And you see the way in which everyday people, everyday heroes are just out there protesting. If there is ever a story or a moment right now to see just the everyday hero fighting, it's this moment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.