It would be myopic to claim the forces of anti-humanism have been dormant at any time in US history. Choose your poison: the judicial murders of accused witches in Salem, union-busting in the early 20th Century, napalming Vietnam, or 400 years of crushing black bodies.
But there’s no denying that resistance to the Trump regime has been a never-ending game of evil Whack-a-Mole. Illustrating this point are the nearly 400 lawsuits that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has brought against his administration. A briskly paced, engrossing new documentary, The Fight, follows five ACLU attorneys in their battles against our Chief Executive and his minions.
Brigitte Amiri is the reproductive rights lawyer in Garza v. Hargan. When the “pro-life” Catholic head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement denied one of their minor charges her right to terminate her post-rape pregnancy, Amiri headed up her case.
Lee Gelernt fights the sadistic policy of separating parents from their children at the border, in Ms. L v. ICE. (The Fight opens with his prior contesting of the Muslim ban in the week after Trump’s inauguration.)
Meanwhile, Chase Strangio – the ACLU’s first trans attorney – and Josh Block challenge the ban against transgender military service, while Dale Ho goes before the nine Supreme Court justices to delete the citizenship question from the 2020 Census.
The directors and editors of The Fight – three apiece – expertly juggle these four narratives, so we never lose our way. They’ve wisely synchronized the unfolding of the cases, so the filings, plaintiff interactions, pre-trial rehearsals (or “moot” sessions before their peers), judicial decisions, and aftermaths occur together in the documentary’s chronology. A peppy, guitar-forward musical score by Argentinian composers Juan Luqui and Gustavo Santaolalla keeps the story bopping along nicely, too.
No doubt, having a trio of directors – Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg – helped in organizing multiple camera crews to follow our five protagonists. This allows for an intimacy to their portraits, as overnights in impersonal hotels seem to outnumber pleasant evenings at home with their spouses and kids. Our emotional investment in The Fight grows as we observe Dale Ho’s self-berating as he practices and re-practices his opening statement before a mirror, or Gelernt’s distress in discovering that there are three “tender age” shelters in south Texas alone for very young kids yanked from their parents’ arms.
Two of the three directors here (Krigman and Steinberg) helmed 2016’s Weiner, another excellent political doc that chronicled Anthony Weiner’s nearly successful NYC mayoral campaign, before sexting scandals tripped him up. There’s a similar vibe in effect for The Fight, with palpable stakes to the onscreen battles, but room for humor as well. Here, it’s in little details: Amiri celebrating an early victory with “train wine” on an Amtrak express, or Dale Ho’s throwaway comment during a tour of the ACLU’s New York headquarters that their staff probably have more tattoos than the DOJ.
If these narratives weren’t compelling enough, stylistic flourishes help hold our attention. Audio from court arguments are accompanied by simple animation of paper cutout figures set against bright red or purple backgrounds. An early montage gives us a whirlwind view of the ACLU’s most prominent cases, such as the Scopes monkey trial, Loving v. Virginia, and Roe v. Wade.
In the ACLU’s centennial year, it might’ve been forgivable for The Fight’s directors to settle into hagiographic mode. But they have the integrity to show that the ACLU doesn’t only represent plaintiffs near and dear to lefties, with clients who’ve historically included Westboro Baptist Church and the American Nazi Party, in their mission to defend free speech for all. In the time frame of this documentary (mostly 2017-8), the ACLU represented Milo Yiannopoulos and the organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The Fight reveals the dissent in the ranks for the latter decision, not to mention the distress after it turned deadly.
I doubt this documentary will win any converts to the ACLU’s mission in our polarized era. If the pre-existing footage of children in cages didn’t revive the deadened hearts of Trump partisans, more of the same probably won’t achieve cardioversion. Likewise, anti-humanist fundamentalists already are quite comfy with their narrow “pro-life” agenda and denying the existence of transgender Americans.
For humanists, however, The Fight will validate support of the ACLU. My wife and I have been members and monthly donors since the start of Trump’s sadofascist regime, and this only firmed up our resolve to continue. When the foes of virtue are so visible – ICE and their Holocaust reenactments, dead-eyed Wilbur Ross and his efforts to uncount Latinx Americans in the census – the good guys are just as easy to spot. But as Dale Ho says near the end of the doc, two and a half floors of lawyers aren’t enough to stop the evil in our realm; this remains a nationwide, all-citizens effort.
(The Fight is available for streaming through major services like Apple and Amazon.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )