The title sequence for the Sundance Jury Prize-winning documentary “The Fight,” which follows five ACLU lawyers as they pursue four landmark cases, includes a tally of all the lawsuits, 147 and rising, filed by the ACLU against the Trump administration. According to Silver Lake resident Eli B. Despres, who co-directed the film with Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman (the trio behind “Weiner”), the original cut just listed a number but it changed so often during filming that they eventually “decided to just have the ticker sound continue to run as that number slides offscreen.”
That ramps up the dramatic tension of a film about cases whose ramifications for American citizens could scarcely be more urgent. Lawyers Brigitte Amiri, Joshua Block, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho and Chase Strangio defend constitutional rights relating to abortion, immigration, voting, and transgender protections — abstract constructs given human form in indelible images: immigrant children in cages, a keening mother rocking her rediscovered daughter in a stairwell, airport crowds protesting the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, a 17-year-old Jane Doe facing away from the camera at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter while explaining her fight for an abortion.
“We did not know how easy or hard it was going to be to make a movie about attorneys exciting and interesting,” Despres said. “We were lit up to realize we had an action courtroom thriller on our hands and not an essay movie about impact litigation.”
Amiri, Block, Gelernt, Ho and Strangio come across as beacons of hope and, not incidentally, brilliant advertisements for the value of competence. Viewer response may be determined by pre-existing attitudes toward the ACLU, but if nothing else the film’s insights should provoke serious discussion of the ACLU’s mission at this critical historical juncture. As Ho says, in what could be the film’s thesis statement: “If I’m not going to be a civil rights lawyer right now, in this moment, when?”
“There seems to be an appetite for this story,” Despres said, explaining why making a film about lawyers fighting for Americans’ civil rights was a “no-brainer” for the production team. “So we’re really excited to be part of the conversation.”
The ACLU’s ardent defense of free speech and civil rights can be a lightning rod for controversy, and a striking sequence shows Amiri, Block, Gelernt, Ho and Strangio reading aloud from their hate mail and listening to vituperative voicemail messages. Some laugh, but the laughs hurt. Ho pins a hateful postcard to the wall over his desk like a strangely humbling talisman. Another, crucial passage covers the tricky intersection of hate speech with free speech in a democracy (a meaty subject worthy of another, separate documentary) and the ACLU’s defense of the Unite the Right rally’s right to take place in Charlottesville in 2017. Staff lawyers voice their staunch opposition to a case that clearly still rankles.
“There is strong disagreement within that organization about how to prioritize the fight for free speech for people with views that everyone there finds abhorrent,” Despres noted. “You see it in the [scenes about] the fascists in Charlottesville. It’s complicated, and there’s a lot of internal debate at the ACLU. I think it makes the story a lot more interesting and frankly makes me feel a lot more excited about the organization that they’re capable of that self-examination and internal dissent, and that they can process that.”
In another scene, Josh Block, who identifies himself as a cisgender male, and Chase Strangio, who is transgender, talk about how to balance the need for lawyers possessing substantial courtroom experience with the need for lawyers who actually belong to the communities they’re representing. It’s a brief but meaningful exchange poking into a little-explored aspect of the ACLU’s work.
“I think that it really drives home the complicated factors in these issues of representation,” Despres said. “I was in a Q&A with Josh Block where he was talking about [how] he doesn’t get the hate mail that Chase does. And it’s why representation is important — there’s something really critical in having voices from the communities tell their own stories. It’s something we’re wrestling with in the filmmaking community too. It’s changing quickly and it’s good that it’s changing quickly. I’m proud of that scene, and I’m grateful to them for being that vulnerable in that moment while our cameras were rolling.”
Little is shown of the ACLU’s behind-the-scenes support staff, but in humanizing scenes we do see the lawyers talking strategy in their offices, making dinner with their families at home, and hitting the road for clients. Amiri blinks back exhaustion at her laptop while preparing case notes; she and her assistant are later shown celebrating with “train wine” after winning their case. Ho laughs at himself in the bathroom mirror while practicing — and flubbing — his opening statement the night before arguing his first case before the Supreme Court (Department of Commerce v. New York). Gelernt’s befuddled inability to keep his cellphone charged provides comic relief, but the look on his face as he says he thinks about his own kids while defending immigrant children taken from their parents is crushing.
“Lee has children and he’s living and dying by what’s happening to his clients. You can see when he finds out he’s lost the Muslim case while he’s live on air at MSNBC and he gets gutpunched, this is not just a job to this man,” Despres observed. “They all suffer from a surfeit of empathy, and they’re heroic in what they’re willing to do.”
“The Fight” will be available to view via Laemmle’s Virtual Cinema and other on-demand platforms beginning July 31. For more details about the film, visit fightthefilm.com.”