'Mighty Ira': Film Review

Mighty Ira
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
A warm portrait that poses ever-urgent questions.
10/9/2020

Ira Glasser, who led the ACLU for two pivotal decades, is profiled in a documentary that focuses on the organization's controversial involvement in the landmark Skokie case of 1977.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, American neo-Nazis and Chicago-area Holocaust survivors all figure prominently in Mighty Ira, a film that pays tribute to a generation of free-speech advocates through one man's story. Now in his 80s, Ira Glasser served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001, and he took the reins expecting to spend most of his time addressing matters of racial justice. His dedication on that front never dimmed, but, as he recalls in this affectionate portrait, "organizational survival" turned out to be priority No. 1.

That's because his assent from the New York ACLU to the national group's helm occurred on the heels of the nonprofit's involvement in the contentious Skokie case (which went to the Supreme Court). Many Americans — including many ACLU members — objected to the organization's stance: It defended the First Amendment rights of neo-Nazis who sought to hold a rally in the Illinois town of Skokie, whose large Jewish population included a significant number of Holocaust survivors.

Exploring key events in Skokie from two perspectives — that of the ACLU and that of Ben Stern, a survivor of the Nazi death camps and a quietly impassioned leader of the Skokie residents' opposition to the proposed march — directors Nico Perrino, Chris Maltby and Aaron Reese zero in on timeless questions about our rights and liberties as citizens. They draw illuminating comparisons between the late-'70s controversy and the 2017 clash of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Available on Angelika Film Center’s virtual cinema before seguing to streaming platforms later in October, the doc is a compelling reminder of not-so-distant history, sounding crucial arguments against the silencing of speech, however offensive, and the slippery slope of double standards.

Mighty Ira intercuts the Skokie story with the affable Glasser's biography. He grew up in working-class Flatbush, during an era of unsupervised street play that's evoked with wonderful period footage. Glasser's ACLU colleague Norman Siegel, a fellow New York native of the same generation, expounds with feeling on the importance to a Brooklyn kid of a simple Spalding rubber ball — and on the inspiration of the Dodgers, a subject at least as dear to Glasser. The film opens with him decked out in Dodgers gear and, clearly at the urging of the filmmakers, making a pilgrimage to Ebbets Field, a place that was "like a religious shrine" to him and is now the site of an apartment complex.

To hear him and Siegel tell it, rooting for that team in the '40s and '50s was not just a matter of fandom but of something profoundly life-shaping. As Glasser astutely points out, when he was growing up the idea of New York as a melting pot was closer to idealistic myth than accurate description. Like most U.S. cities at the time, it was composed of "insular, segregated tribes"; his childhood neighborhood was white and Jewish. It wasn't until sports announcer Red Barber mentioned the ordeals Glasser's hero Jackie Robinson and other Black players faced on the road that the Brooklyn boy understood the unjust realities of race in American life. He came to appreciate the larger significance of sitting in the integrated stands of a Dodgers game.

The formative significance of Glasser's home-team love is evident in the work he went on to do. As editor of political journal Current, a print aggregator of reports about "the frontier problems of today," he longed to be more directly involved in addressing those problems. But a job offer from the New York American Civil Liberties Union left him indifferent — until Robert Kennedy encouraged him to take the position, understanding better than a skeptical Glasser that it would put him on the front lines he sought.

Among those attesting to his role in heightening the group's profile and influence are Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the New York Civil Rights Coalition's Michael Meyers. Those weighing in on the ACLU mission are Glasser's colleagues Nadine Strossen and David Goldberger, the lead defense attorney in the Skokie case. It's worth noting that Strossen, Goldberger and Glasser are Jewish, and certainly no fans of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America, but unflinching in their commitment to its First Amendment right to free speech.

The filmmakers could have laid out the converging personal and public timelines more clearly, but what's perfectly lucid is the way Glasser, in the years after the divisive case, became the face of the ACLU. At a moment when dismissive tweets too often constitute political discourse, the spirited but thoroughly civilized TV debates he engaged in are enough to make you nostalgic for The Phil Donahue Show — and even for William F. Buckley's Firing Line, on which Glasser regularly faced off against the famous conservative. The unlikely friendship that blossomed between the Flatbush boy and the Upper East Side blueblood provides some of the film's strongest moments of sentiment, along with Glasser's present-day exchange with the nonagenarian Stern, still tirelessly committed to speaking out about the evils of fascism.

The film aims for present-day intimacy and historical insight over stylistic flair (the music score could have been used more judiciously). But its curation of archival material is impressive, offering fresh views of familiar, widely reported events and figures, from the desperate condition of liberated concentration camp prisoners to a superb excerpt of a speech by Martin Luther King on the constitutional right to protest. One of the most crucial and resounding pieces of information in the doc reveals that the legal weapons wielded by Skokie against local neo-Nazis and their clownish leader are the same ones used by Southern municipalities to silence King and other civil rights visionaries.

In its unflashy way, Mighty Ira underscores the kind of truths that many will consider inconvenient, especially in these hyper-tribal times. We might like it when movie heroes turn a villain's brutal weapons against him. But here in the real world, Glasser and his fellow First Amendment advocates remind us, political winds shift and today's villain might be tomorrow's hero. We can't apply justice on a sliding scale or allow dissent only when we agree with it. Who decides?

In virtual cinemas Distributor: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
Production companies: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, DKT Liberty Project, JTWO Films
Directors: Nico Perrino, Chris Maltby, Aaron Reese
Producers-cinematographers-editors: Aaron Reese, Chris Maltby
Executive producers: Greg Lukianoff, Phil Harvey, AC Bushnell
Composers: Scott McRae, Ryan Rapsys

99 minutes