In 1988, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush dismissed his rival Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” By contrast, Bush proclaimed himself “for the people,” as though the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit organization that defends the equal human rights established in the Constitution, was instead championing UFOs.
There’s a documentary or 12 to be made about the public being led to believe that their protectors are the problem, or the long history of sticky political smears. (Bush’s words deliberately evoked the “card-carrying Communist” panic of the Cold War.) Yet, Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despress’ “The Fight” is tightly focused on the present day, briefcase-carrying employees of the ACLU prosecuting four pivotal cases against the Trump Administration, during which they’ve filed no fewer than 147 lawsuits.
The directors want to grant humanity to the lawyers themselves. ACLU Deputy Director Lee Gelernt is, like most of his colleagues, an unslept, diet-soda-swilling workaholic under pressure to forgo his personal needs, including time with his own family, to try to reunite immigrant parents and children separated at the border. Gelernt, the veteran of the team, has logged enough hours on TV news that his face may be the most familiar. (He’s also more prone to looking around desperately for tech help when he needs to, say, charge his cellphone. The others are all parents with young children in an office slanted toward youthful vim and vigor, though Dale Ho, the voting rights specialist, claims to be too old to participate in the office’s Whiskey Wednesdays. Everyone presents as kind and indefatigable with a masochistic habit of monitoring the nasty emails, postcards and voicemails that flood their offices. “You’re all obviously pedophiles,” chides one phone caller. That, too, is free speech they’d defend.
The four cases at stake in “The Fight” are familiar. There’s the family separation suit, the 17-year-old rape victim denied an abortion at a Refugee Resettlement facility, the presidential tweet that banned transgender people from serving in the military, and the newly added immigration question on the 2020 census that could cost diverse cities up to six seats in the House of Representatives.
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The documentary’s interest in people over legal procedure is a corrective to the image that, say, they’re all pedophiles. Yet, in a moment divided into heroes and villains, there’s an urge for the film to go deeper into how, exactly, these lawyers use the Constitution as a cape. “The Fight” offers a few glimpses of their tactics, when not simply lauding their passion and elbow grease. Gelernt stresses the need to stir the judge’s emotions about the horror of family separation. Chase Strangio and Joshua Block, who are tag-teaming on the transgender military ban, debate which of them is the best face to argue the case. Ho explains that he’s chosen to hinge his census argument not on the perils of disenfranchising urban voters, but on the small, irrefutable point that the question is redundant. And Brigitte Amiri, defending her anonymous 17-year-old Jane Doe who’s seen only in closeups of her hair and childish white sneakers, zeroes in on how Scott Lloyd, the Director of Refugee Resettlement, patronizes her client. “She claimed to have been raped,” he says during her deposition. Claimed? Did he have reason to believe she lied? No, he concedes.
The ACLU itself has come under fire when its commitment to liberty makes it defend hate. In Charlottesville, the ACLU supported the alt-right’s freedom to march and chant “Jews will not replace us.” The next day, counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. Was the ACLU wrong? No, says Executive Director Anthony D. Romero, pointing to their defense of a 1977 Nazi rally in Skokie, Ill., as precedent. His colleague Jeffery Robinson isn’t so sure. In 1977, Robinson notes, the hate rally wasn’t armed — and it wasn’t condoned by the White House. But if the ACLU is internally debating their limits, they’re not ready to do so in public.
As documentaries go, “The Fight” is a stack of evidence files, not an argument that might sway an audience member’s pre-formed opinion (a struggle many docs face in these polarized days). Conversely, even those inclined to applaud might groan to see the commander-in-chief’s most infamous tweets retyped in real time, or once again proclaim that the Charlottesville racist parade was full of “very fine people on both sides.” America is so punch-drunk that “The Fight” often feels like it’s whacking old bruises. But that is the national psyche’s problem more than the filmmakers’. For their part, they have made a worthwhile record of the civil rights advocates combating the country’s backslide into stripping away rights for voters, immigrants, pregnant women and the LGBTQ community.
Toward the climax, “The Fight” edits the four trials together into a collage of lawyers walking into courthouses (where the documentary was not allowed to film), and then waiting for the verdict. That it’s suspenseful is a sign of the times. There have been so many big fights in the last three years that it’s at once hard to believe and utterly plausible that the audience won’t remember what happened. The lawyers themselves march on to their next battle, and seem to hope that this documentary will help garner public support that can itself effect change. “We’re two-and-a-half stories of a building in New York,” says Ho. “We‘re not going to solve it.” Yet, card-carrying members, or those compelled to join after watching this doc, can celebrate that this year is the ACLU’s 100th birthday, and the organization shows no sign of slowing down.