By Elias Savada.
Though filmed pre-pandemic, there is a shared sense of heroics here, be they legal or medical professions engaging an overwhelming enemy.”
For most of you, The Fight starts off with a gag reflex – the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States – which coincides when the battle lines were drawn for any number of civil rights rollbacks in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s the good folks of the American Civil Liberties Union taking up the task against the fool on the hill, now waist deep in so many other health, economic, and election issues. Trump has certainly been keeping the ACLU busy.
Though filmed pre-pandemic, there is a shared sense of heroics here, be they legal or medical professions engaging an overwhelming enemy. The doctors, nurses, and their associates will get their film when the country’s temperature returns to normal. For now, directors Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman, and Eli Despres (all also producers with Maya Seidler, Peggy Drexler, and actress Kerry Washington), realized a common need to “get inside” the ACLU and film its legal Davids taking aim at the government’s Goliaths.
Despres edited Weiner (2016) – which Kriegman and Steinberg directed (they all co-wrote) – and Blackfish (2013). The Fight was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance, where it won a Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking. It played virtually at AFI DOCS and is now on numerous watch-at-home platforms.
The Fight chronicles a handful of the organization’s lawyers, all based out of its New York City office, with particular gripes against the president’s right-wing actions, and the legal minds to wage judicial war. Their headquarters consists of a spartan two and a half floors on Broad Street. Nothing is spacious or audacious. The intern room has dozens of earnest people bent over laptops on long, plain tables. They are all hungry for justice.
The court system in the United States is daunting, as the documentary shows, but it’s just the tip of the judicial iceberg. Checking out Garza v. Hargan, you’ll recall about the pregnant 17-year-old Jane Doe caught in the immigration headlights. She’s seeking an abortion, but, as an unaccompanied minor in federal custody, was barred by the directors of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Administration for Children and Families from obtaining one. ACLU senior staff attorney Brigitte Amiri and fellow reproductive rights attorney Meagan Burrows were actually just two of a dozen attorneys who worked this case.
Next up, the battle for transgender individuals to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Once Trump tweeted his intention to ban such people from serving their country, Brock Stone, a 34-year-old petty officer in the U.S. Navy stationed at Fort Meade, felt the need to be heard. Enter LGBT rights specialists Josh Block and Chase Strangio (also dealing with rambunctious child) to spearhead Stone v. Trump.
Dale Ho, the road weary director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, is shown practicing a legal statement in a barren hotel room before trying to wrap a scarf around his neck and make his way to the Robert J. Dole United States Courthouse in Kansas City (Kansas). His case is Dept. of Commerce v. New York, the basis coming from Trump’s wish to ask if people are American citizens on the 2020 Census. Lots of potentially disenfranchised folks would be affected and millions would not respond. With the pandemic afoot, the national self-response currently lingers at just 62.8%.
For Trump’s attacks on immigrants, there’s Lee Gelernt pushing back against the “Muslim” ban instituted through a series of executive orders. The attorney is also heading up the family separation team fighting Ms. L v. ICE. The government’s spokesman at the time was U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who proclaimed “We are not going to let this country be overwhelmed.” Gelernt laments the story of a terrified 7-year-old child separated from her distraught mother. While the parent is seeking asylum near the San Diego border, the daughter is sent to Chicago. When Gelernt realizes this is happening to many hundreds of traumatized families, his frustration erupts. His primary target is injustice, but the attorney is also struggling with a temperamental cell phone charger.
Flashy split screens are expertly used, and a quick pacing abounds. The film’s broad palette covers enough footage that three editors were used; Despres is joined by award-winners Greg Finton and Kim Roberts. The filmmakers capture many crazy statements by Trump, and they provide counterpunch intertitles. They zig-zags between causes, the camera often up close and personal with both the lawyers and their clients. News footage hammers home the Trump lunacy. There are sidebar sequences about Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s retirement and Kavanaugh’s weaseling testimony. The film doesn’t hide from ACLU’s decision to support First Amendment rights for all. According to its legal director David Cole, “We have a policy of defending those with whom we disagree, including white supremacists, including the alt right. And we will continue to do so.” Cue the Charlottesville fiasco in 2017, for which some inside the organization disagreed regarding its involvement.
Among the many enlightening moments is one when the attorneys read hate mail or play phone messages from unidentified folks who are definitely not fans. It actually makes them double down their efforts. Another time, the camera catches Galernt about to go on MSNBC, only minutes after hearing about Trump’s Supreme Court victory with the third travel ban. The blood drains from his face as he scrambles to gain information and composure, but the sense of defeat for him echoes that of many Americans. Frankly, with the courts so stacked in the President’s favor these days, it’s a miracle any sanity can be found in its rulings.
Moot court sessions, accompanied by Juan Luqui’s urgent score, arrive in the last third of the film, allowing the attorneys to hone their arguments and get over issues that might hinder their cases. The cascading briefs all seem to arrive at steps of various courthouses as the film winds down, Ho at the Supreme Court, Amiri and Burrows across town in Washington, Gelernt in San Diego, Block in Baltimore. You can cheer on the victories (have some hankies ready), strange as some are, and mourn the losses.
With the election season fast approaching, this film is a very timely arrival. The Fight gives all socially-conscious individuals hope that there are wonderful people making superhuman efforts to beat back horrid attempts to stifle basic human rights and dignities. It is glorious to watch them shine.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).