“I’m on it,” says civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump as he takes a phone call from the family of another Black victim of police violence. In this scene from Nadia Hallgren’s “Civil: Ben Crump,” he is shown at his family home in Tallahassee, Fla., in a rare private moment. Moments later, he falls into a characteristic pose on the living room sofa while his mother looks concerned: His head is in his hand, his face wearing both weariness and determination.
For Crump, nicknamed “Black America’s attorney general,” such calls are dispiritingly frequent. His cases include the police killings of Breonna Taylor and Andre Hill, among others. The film, which follows him from 2020 through 2021, focuses primarily on Crump’s campaign to win a settlement from the city of Minneapolis for the family of George Floyd, whose murder by police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on camera and had already shocked millions worldwide into outrage and protests. Crump takes on the cause of another grieving Black family after a police officer fatally shoots Daunte Wright around 10 miles away from where Chauvin is on trial.
Inevitably, the big settlements have brought on criticism of Crump — that he is exploiting Black victims for personal fame and gain. Fox News pushes this line of attack, claiming that he “plays the race card for profit,” as do more mainstream outlets. While interviewing Crump, Ted Koppel asks if his efforts to seek justice for victims of police violence would seem more cogent if he did it for free. Crump points out these cases are the least profitable among those his firm takes on; other cases involve environmental justice or “banking while Black,” for instance.
Despite his nonstop schedule — Crump insists he must maintain a breakneck pace to keep up with the demand and not lose an opportunity to achieve progress — he manages to spend time with his wife, daughter, and extended family. But even then, he is often interrupted by another plaintive inquiry and an account of gross inequity. Hallgren tries to keep up, though the film feels at times a bit breathless and cursory, even hagiographic. But what “Civil” lacks in depth it makes up for in its overwhelming breadth of evidence of injustice and in its telling details: “Handle with extreme care” printed on the shipping crate containing George Floyd’s body; Crump dejected and exhausted at his desk, his phone in one hand, his head in the other.
“Civil: Ben Crump” is available on Netflix.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.