Never have the stakes seemingly been so high for the ACLU than the last few years. Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, the already thinly stretched staff of the ACLU, have been working overtime tackling key, high profile cases, clocking in a whopping 173 lawsuits against the Trump administration … and counting. The documentary film, “The Fight,” chronicles several of these cases headed up by four hard-working, determined ACLU lawyers. These defining situations that make up “The Fight” are brought to us by the filmmakers of the 2016 award-winning documentary “Weiner” (Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman, Eli Despres). Like in that film, they further prove with this one that they have a keen talent at mixing politics with personal drama, and a dab of humor along the way.
Filmmakers introduce each featured issue and case through the vehicle of clients, but mostly through the tireless lawyers themselves. Starting with Brigitte Amiri, a deputy director for the nonprofit’s Reproductive Freedom Project. Although she handles many cases that fall under this division, the film focuses on the Jane Doe case, which challenged the Trump administration’s ban on abortion for unaccompanied immigrant minors. Joshua Block is a senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects. Together with Chase Strangio, the only Transgender lawyer at the ACLU, he is lead counsel in Stone v. Trump. This case was its challenge to President Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from serving in the military. Taking up the case for the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project, is the film’s most high profile lawyer. Many viewers may recognize him from adding insight and commentary on legal matters through such media outlets as MSNBC and CNN. Lee Gelerent is widely considered one of the nation’s leading public interest lawyers. As such, he has argued dozens of pivotal cases throughout the country, including in the U.S. Supreme Court. In “The Fight” he takes one of his cases concerning family separation to the high court, arguing on behalf of asylum seekers.
Rounding out the group of heroic attorneys is Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and supervisor of its voting rights litigation. Like his colleagues, Ho is involved and has been involved in numerous other cases pertaining to his area of specialty. At one point, prior to the Trump election, he had planned to take time away from the ACLU, but he realized and admitted, “If I’m not going to be a civil rights lawyer now, in this moment, then when?" For the film, the focus is on Department of Commerce v. New York which challenged the inclusion of a citizenship question on the Census. Viewers witness Ho’s journey to the U.S. Supreme Court for this particular case.
All of the film’s featured lawyers are equally engaging and impassioned. They are classic examples of unsung heroes, fighting our battles, regardless of political affiliation. You see them not only with their game faces on in court, but also in their houses interacting with their spouses, children and siblings, at times particularly vulnerable, like when Ho is rehearsing arguments in front of the bathroom mirror. We’re also taken into the ACLU office, seeing the lawyers interacting with colleagues, taking important calls, and in one scenario, Gelerent stressed when he can’t get one of his cell phones charged up or anyone to assist with needed tech support. It is this office access that is truly unique to the film as the ACLU has never granted video access to its offices. While, obviously, some conversations are sensitive and one can assume not all matters were available for public consumption, the unusual open access is undeniable and key to the documentary’s success. Especially poignant in this regard is witnessing the internal turmoil over the agency’s decision to represent the white supremacist’s right to protest in Richmond, Virginia in 2017. ACLU officials were conflicted and in conflict over the matter. When things turned out as they did, the agency was criticized, in some cases even blamed. The lawyers were devastated, but some of the ACLU leadership stood by the decision to represent “the right to protest, even if by a group they personally disagreed with.”
All the lawsuits are important in their own way for each of the lawyers, personally committed to client and cause, and to the individual clients, but more broadly, the cases speak to what’s at stake for all Americans - the preservation of democracy. In fact, separately, any of the cases and causes could be a documentary onto itself, but collectively, it is absolutely raw and riveting. To say that “The Fight” is timely and necessary is an understatement. The only way it could have been even more so, would have been to include a legal issue pertaining specifically to police brutality and race given the current state of affairs. Beyond the inspiration of the real life characters, and the legal journeys explored, “The Fight” ushers in hope. In spirit and structure, it is similar to last year’s “Knock Down the House” documentary following several outsider candidates, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as they campaign in 2018 for the Congressional election and to make a difference. If you liked that film, you will definitely want to experience “The Fight.” It is in select theaters and On Demand on July 31st.
Directors: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
Stars: Brigitte Amiri, Lee Gelerent, Dale Ho
Runtime: 96 min.