Documentary Review: ACLU lawyers roll up their sleeves for “The Fight”

The legal profession takes its share of rightly-deserved brickbats from the press, the public and stand-up comics. And if you’ve ever dealt with a “class action” hustle — “We sue in your name, and keep all the money” — or a small town estate lawyer — “Let’s see how I can bill your estate into infinity — you have your own reasons for agreeing.

But there are people for whom the law is a calling, for whom the Constitution is Holy Writ, lawyers hated more out of ignorance or because those inundating them with threatening calls, hateful letters and emails have been conditioned to hate by the echo chamber of right wing media.

Whenever Constitutionally-protected speech is threatened, wherever rural populist politicians figure “majority rule” means they can turn off civil rights for outvoted minorities, ACLU lawyers are there. They’re the hated “outsiders” from that Mecca of right wing venom, New York. They show up with the legal arguments they hope a rational, Constitutional court will listen to and stop the erosion, or in recent years, open trampling of America’s celebrated, traditional, legally-protected civil rights.

They’re here for “The Fight.” 

“The Fight” is a documentary about the American Civil Liberties Union, an institution derided in American life for much of its existence, but particularly since the 1960s, when its role in ensuring civil rights meant rights that had to apply to “all Americans,” of any race, gender or region. It’s been a favorite knee-jerk target of America’s increasingly shrill conservatives of the press, the pulpit and the Republican party.

Filmmakers Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli B. Despres (and producer Kerry Washington) set out to do an almost-intimate overview of the ACLU’s activities in battle with an administration hell-bent on rolling back American civil liberties to earlier sexist, white supremacist and homophobic standards.

Lawyer Dale Ho is captured, at work, in court and at home, battling Trump administration efforts to suppress the vote and strip voting rights through a back-door “Are you a U.S. citizen?” question on the 2020 census, part of a wider assault aimed at intimidating Hispanics — legal voters, and refugees — and disenfranchising populous (Democratic) states. 

Brigitte Amiri tackles the “Overturn Roe V. Wade” effort, beloved by rural Protestant and urban Catholic America, via a case where a Trump appointee tries to force an immigrant, underage rape victim to carry a pregnancy to term. Scott Lloyd, a bellicose and unqualified activist briefly in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (he was later removed) would go on religious chat shows and brag about how he was ending abortion, one case at a time, in his department.

Lee Gelernt gets emotional as he struggles to overturn the horrific policies of separating migrant children from their families while refugee and immigration requests are processed.

And Chase Strangio and Josh Block take on the case of Brock Stone, a transgender member of the Navy, defending the right of transgender people to serve in the U.S. military after yet another extra-legal “executive order” is handed down by Trump to attack that minority’s rights.

Ho, seen with his family, notes that he’d been hoping to move into a quieter corner of ACLU law so that he’d be able to spend more time at home. And then Trump was “elected.”

“If I’m not going to be a civil rights lawyer now, then when?”

ACLU officials such as Jeffrey Stone agonize over the widely unpopular case they’ve taken on, specifically protecting the rights of Trump-emboldened Nazis to march in Charlottesville, Va., leading to riots and a murder, with “our name attached to this event” simply by standing up for the right of free speech.

Strangio discusses being both a lawyer on LGBT issues, and a spokesman as a transgender man on such issues, in his work.

And Gelernt, interviewing immigrant clients, prepping his briefs and making his case on TV, when invited, laments that his battle against child-separation policies is “one of those cases I just cannot lose…These little kids are just being terrorized.

One knows from experience that “The Fight” isn’t a movie that will reach the wider public. If it’s mentioned on One America News, Fox News or other right wing outlets, it will be simply the subject of ridicule. “ACLU” is an acronym, like NAACP, that makes a portion of the populace see red and tune out.

While lawyers read, in one montage, from their mountains of hate mail, there’s not a lot of balance to the film, aside from snippets of Fox News opinionators praising this or that Trump extra-legal executive fiat. The split screens following assorted cases don’t cover for the fact that every chapter of the film is given short shrift by choosing to explore four separate sets of cases.

And of course, if you follow the news, you know sometimes they win, often they lose.

But it’s worth remembering that in a time when reactionaries are taking a blunderbuss to The Constitution, to the norms of a democratic republic, to anybody they perceive as “the other,” when courts are being stacked with unqualified partisan hacks, bigots and rage-aholics, there’s this one institution and its lawyers, interns and backers, arguing back, taking “The Fight” to those started it.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for strong language, thematic material and brief violence.

Cast: Brigitte Amiri, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Brock Stone, Chase Strangio

Credits: Directed by  Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg.  A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:36

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