For over 100 years the American Civil Liberties Union has upheld in court the principles of our democracy, defending those whose rights have been violated and challenging unconstitutional laws and policies. Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres’s “The Fight” follows four ACLU cases. Like their documentary “Weiner” (2016), about the disgrace and downfall of US Representative Anthony Weiner, their coverage of events occurs in real time with remarkable serendipity and dramatic suspense. Here, however, the stakes involved — immigration, abortion, and LGBTQ and voting rights — are graver and more urgent.
Some cases are more urgent than others. Days after President Trump took office, in January 2017, he signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries. ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt was in the Brooklyn US courthouse arguing to have the order blocked. There he received a note from a lawyer in the audience saying that in 20 minutes his client was going to be put on a plane and sent back to her country, where her life was in danger. It was enough time to convince the judge to block the order.
Gelernt, who is deputy director of the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project, is one of the more colorful subjects. He’s brilliant and bumbling: Gelernt’s inability to get a phone charger to work adds comic relief and heightened anxiety to a fraught moment. He deals with some of the most heartrending cases, such as the separation of families by immigration authorities at the border. The kids in cages and the grief-stricken parents who don’t know where their children are cause him to choke up.
The filmmakers capture all four lawyers in both vulnerable and heroic moments. Like Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project, preparing for his first appearance before the Supreme Court and nervously stumbling and restarting as he practices his arguments including against a citizenship question on the census form. It’s a situation familiar to anyone who has had to undergo the stress of public speaking. Not so familiar are his feelings of despondency and then of incredulous triumph as he reads the confusing decision and realizes that what at first seems bad news turns out to be a decision in his favor.
Other cases epitomize some of the issues the ACLU has contended with since Trump took office. Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, pleads for a 17-year-old rape victim denied an abortion at a refugee resettlement facility. And Chase Strangio and his colleague Joshua Block represent a Navy chief petty officer with over 12 years of service who faces the end of a career because Trump has tweeted that transgender people are banned from the military.
Most of these cases end successfully, at least until they are challenged again. But sometimes victory can be ambiguous or have unintended consequences. The ACLU defended the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., in 1977 and more recently represented the Westboro Baptist Church when it sought permission to conduct anti-gay demonstrations at military funerals. And in 2017, the organization backed the alt-right groups behind the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in which a counter-demonstrator was murdered. The filmmakers catch the shocked and rueful reactions of those in the ACLU office as they watch the news of that tragedy unfold.
But all are equal under the law, regardless of ideology. These days those whose rights are under assault tend to be more the victims rather than the purveyors of hate. The lawyers in the film are compared to superheroes, to David and Goliath. But they know their efforts are not enough. “We are 2½ floors in a building in New York,” says Ho at the end of the film. “We’re not going to solve [the problems]. It’s not going to be lawyers in court. It’s going to be people.”
Directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres. Available via Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room, coolidge.org/films/fight. 96 minutes. PG-13 (strong language, mature thematic material, brief violence).