Two years ago, American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony D. Romero told The New York Times Magazine that “most of our support came from people who have been with us since we challenged Nixon. Now we’re kind of cool. Cool’s not a word generally associated with us.”
And that’s essentially what the new documentary The Fight, directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, brings to life: how a group of highly competent lawyers whose works has flown under the radar for most people are now seizing their moment in a fraught era that has also made them, perhaps for the first time, “cool.”
The ACLU’s team of lawyers across the country has probably provided more body checks to the Trump administration than Congress at this point, and that’s heartening. Since President Donald J. Trump was sworn in on Jan. 27, 2017, the ACLU has filed 147 lawsuits against the administration. The first was filed just seven days after his inauguration, when the first version of Trump’s Muslim ban was signed, wreaking havoc at airports across the country.
And frankly, it’s nice to see David beating Goliath on the big screen. Right off the bat, the directors — whose Sundance grand jury prize-winning doc Weiner dug into the details around disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner’s demise — make the wise choice to focus on four of the most pivotal cases and the five lawyers litigating them.
These lawyers are Brigitte Amiri, Joshua Block, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho and Chase Strangio. They work around the clock and against it, and the film cares more about celebrating them, and the ACLU, than offering any biting critiques. And pretty quickly into the movie, amid the many darts and arrows the Trump administration throws, it’s comforting to be able to fixate on these real-life heroes.
These five main characters and the sheer amount of both mundane and creative lawyering they perform is by far the most compelling aspect of the Kerry Washington-produced doc. Mountains of legal documents spring up on Amiri’s desk as she prepares a case on behalf of a minor in custody at the border, whose legal right to an abortion is being violated. Ho practices the carefully crafted statement he’ll make during his first time arguing before the Supreme Court. He recites it over and over again in the mirror until it has activated muscle memory. The insider view into the actual labor that goes into being a civil rights attorney is inspiring and informative to the general public, whose knowledge of the law too often comes from Law & Order reruns.
On the other hand, it is hard to buy that these lawyers are putting everything on the line when they go home to their beautiful Brooklyn brownstones or their Hilton hotel suites on the road. They undoubtedly work hard and are making a difference, yes, but the film shields us from connecting to them as human beings with flaws. That means The Fight tends to feel like a fundraising video for the ACLU that doesn’t give the audience much room to decide for themselves.
And speaking of fundraising, the documentary conveniently leaves out the double-edged sword of how the Trump administration has also been fantastic for their bottom line. Pre-Trump, annual donations averaged upwards of $3 million, but in the fifteen months that followed Trump’s election, that number skyrocketed to almost $120 million. And their membership ranks have grown from 400,000 to just under 2 million. With this omission, the doc plays it safe and undermines its overall message.
However, the film does remind the audience that the organization’s Constitution-loyalist beginnings require that they also defend conservative groups, like the Tiki torch bros who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. And deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson makes clear that there wasn’t universal agreement within the ranks of ACLU leadership about taking them on as clients, as he believes the decision to represent white supremacists in today’s climate isn’t comparable to their representing right-wing groups in the past.
Nonetheless, Steinberg, Kriegman and Despres get the balance right between the legal heroes and their collaborators, the marginalized groups they are fighting to protect. Sharp and unobtrusive frames successfully capture the intense emotion of the moment: the protesters ever rallying, the disturbing footage of children traumatized by family separations at the border, the weeping Muslim families reunited at the airport. These are the images that encapsulate what fighting to uphold the Constitution really means, and are necessary to hold on to in these times.
Production companies: Simpson Street, Drexler Films
Cast: Brigitte Amiri, Joshua Block, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Chase Strangio
Directors: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres
Producers: Elyse Steinberg, Maya Seidler, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres, Peggy Drexler, Kerry Washington
Executive producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Florence Sloan, Harry Sloan, Pilar Savone, Maria Zuckerman
Director of photography: Sean McGing
Editors: Eli Despres, Greg Finton, Kim Roberts
Original Music: Juan Luqui
Music Supervisor: Mary Ramos
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)