By C.J. Hirschfield
They ride all forms of public transit, lug around pounds of paper, eat on the run, stay in modest hotels where they practice alone in front of the mirror, and lament all of the time they have to spend away from their families. They are the unsung human rights superheroes, and the new documentary The Fight powerfully– and engagingly–tells not only their stories, but of four major court cases that have the potential to upend our most cherished and hard-fought rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union has never granted filmmakers access to its offices and its battles before, and their choice to do so for the filmmaking team of Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg was an inspired one. The crew’s award-winning (and Academy Award short-listed) documentary Weiner was a multi-layered and fast-paced look at a charismatic but flawed leader, whose hubris proved to be his downfall.
This time around, the subjects are four charming attorneys who have been assigned cases— immigration, abortion, LGBT and voting rights—where the stakes could not be higher.
The film begins with the swearing in of our current president; only days later the ACLU was on the scene to fight his Muslim travel ban in federal court. From that moment on, 2-1/2 floors of ACLU’s office building in New York were at full throttle, as right after right was being threatened. Some of the film’s lighthearted moments actually involve a tour of the rooms where it happens, from the copy room to the office where RGB led the organization’s Women’s Rights Project in the seventies.
The ACLU has been around nearly a century, leading the charge on issues including the teaching of evolution, interracial and gay marriage, pornography, and defending the right of Nazis to demonstrate. Regarding the actions of our current president to remove existing rights, ACLU leadership says, “we’ve never seen anything like this in 96 years.” They have brought over 160 cases in this administration, and the four featured in The Fight are doozies.
The front-line warrior-lawyers who are leading the charge are not glamorous, but their commitment and compassion are impressive, as is the courage and grace of the plaintiffs whose lives provide the tests: A 17-year old pregnant immigrant detained and denied the right to an abortion, a decorated transgender Navy officer in jeopardy of being removed from service, an immigrant cruelly separated from her 7- year old daughter for months.
Even though some of the stories are heart-wrenching, the film manages to remain doggedly positive throughout.
The filmmakers utilize two techniques as very effective tools to move the stories forward, and to create visual impact and interest. Stunning animation in the style of a graphic novel is used to illustrate court scenes and to make points, and I’ve never seen a better use of split screen, particularly as our lawyers are arguing their cases in moot court prior to the real deal.
There is tension and drama as the film builds to case conclusions, and we leave inspired by the efforts of these modest ACLU lawyers, whose job descriptions didn’t include the receipt of constant voicemails and letters steeped in hate and threats. Amidst current news cycles filled with a never-ending barrage of challenges to our freedoms, it’s worthwhile to learn the complicated—but critically important—process by which these encroachments are being beaten back, and by whom. And spoiler alert: David does occasionally beat Goliath…
The film’s press release says that “These lawyers may not know how to charge a cell phone or operate a stand-up desk but have persuaded Supreme Court Justices…”
I don’t know if knowledge of tech is a required skill for superheroes, but if I were in trouble, I’d definitely choose any one of them to have my back.
The Fight opened Friday, July 31 in Virtual Cinemas, benefiting independent art cinemas. To rent it Find your favorite theater here.
Producer Kerry Washington will be joined by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union for a virtual discussion that will be available following the film. According to Variety Washington converses with Brigitte Amiri, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Joshua Block and Chase Strangio — the attorneys featured in the doc — in a wide-ranging conversation about themes that emerge in The Fight.
Learn more about The Fight and the ACLU below.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
Read about the history of the ACLU.
Visit the American Civil Liberties Union website
Anne Thompson of Indiewire tells how the filmmakers convinced the ACLU to allow them “inside” and their process creating a nail-biter following four landmark cases.
On July 29, Intercept Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed hosted a virtual conversation on the current state of civil rights in Trump’s America with three ACLU lawyers at the center of these fights: Brigitte Amiri, deputy director at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project; Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU national Immigrants’ Rights Project; and Chase Strangio, deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project.
Production Notes are available here.
Producer/Actress Kerry Washington explains why she calls the ACLU “real life superheroes” in their fight for voting rights in conversation with attorney Dale Ho and Joy Reid.
“These guys are so inspiring. You really look at the last four years, how they have been in the trenches fighting for civil rights and civil liberties for every single American with attacks on our civil liberties coming from this administration. And they really are fighting this fight,” explained Washington. “To me, these guys are like our real-life Avengers, you know.” Showbiz Cheatsheet.
Kerry Washington tells Variety that she hopes viewers are inspired to get involved, too.