(USA, 96 min.)
Dir. Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres
After wowing the documentary crowd with their portrait of an errant Weiner, Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres chronicle a battle against a tyrannical dick. The Weiner team is back as furious as ever with The Fight. This potent film spotlights the indefatigable lawyers of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenging Donald Trump’s war on human rights and dignity. The Fight features four cases among the many lawsuits brought against the Trump administration by the ACLU. (173 at the time of the film’s completion.) The cases are appropriate trials that represent the gross violations on human rights by the Trump administration. The lawyers fight to protect immigration rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights. Early raves from Sundance position The Fight as a David(s) versus Goliath tale, but that likeness, while apt, doesn’t quite do the lawyers justice. The Fight ultimately observes the heart of American democracy battling for its life.
The Fight crosscuts the four cases while devoting roughly equal time to each story as the lawyers defend their clients. Lee Gelernt fights on behalf of asylum seekers, who face devastating challenges when they land on American soil after long struggles to escape conflict at home. His case inevitably delivers the most heartbreaking footage of the film as he advocates on behalf of parents who are senselessly separated from their children at the border. The images of children in cages under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jurisdiction remain unsettling no matter how often the media repeats them. Gelernt speaks with parents from Africa and Latin America who desperately seek reunions with their children. The access is remarkable and essential for providing voices and perspectives of asylum seekers navigating the everyday hell that Trump makes for people who simply want their children to enjoy freedoms, opportunities, and security they could not have at home.
Similarly, Brigitte Amiri leads the charge in the case of Jane Doe, a 17-year-old who came to America alone and discovered she was pregnant while in detention at the border. Amiri argues that any person on American soil has the right to an abortion, but the superior at the detention centre denies Doe the procedure, which conflicts with his beliefs. The case proceeds and ultimately puts Amiri before a panel of three judges that includes Brett Kavanagh. Doe’s plea is the sole abortion case in Kavanagh’s record ahead of his Supreme Court nomination by Trump. The case therefore assumes enormous significance for the future of Roe v. Wade as conservative lawmakers gain power. Amiri cites Kavanagh’s begrudging duty to follow the precedent of Roe v. Wade in abortion cases, but notes that upgrading him to the Supreme Court grants him the right to set new precedents and, in turn, undo the rights of women to govern their bodies.
The stakes are equally high in the case of Stone v. Trump in which ACLU lawyers Joshua Block and Chase Strangio take on Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military. Their case evokes the duty for representation and inclusion across the levels of people involved in creating laws and policies. (The cases all reek of the effects of white supremacy and the patriarchal establishment.) Strangio assumes a lead role in the case and a heavy responsibility as the only transgender lawyer representing trans-military personnel, including plaintiff Brock Stone. Stone figures prominently in the film to illustrate the lives dedicated to military service put at risk by Trump’s senseless transphobia. The film asks how a country can ask its citizens to serve, yet place arbitrary exclusions limiting who can assume the high calling to defend the country.
The film finds its strongest dramatic arc in Dale Ho’s fight for voting rights with the case of Department of Commerce v. New York. The case, which ultimately brings Ho before the Supreme Court, sees Ho arguing that the inclusion of the question of American citizenship on the census could prove an arbitrary risk for respondents while compromising the integrity of the census itself if residents avoid responding. In turn, a failure to respond influences government representation, particularly for areas with high percentages of cultural minorities who might decline to respond. Ho’s case effectively fights against the weaponization of the census for gerrymandering. His case builds natural momentum throughout the film as he leads the ACLU to the Supreme Court, arguing his first case before the judges, and presenting succinct points with immediate implications for the upcoming election.
Steinberg, Kriegman, and Despres astutely play these four cases as complementary plans of attack in a united battle. The cases inevitably intersect as the lawyers rehearse their arguments, offering peeks behind the curtain of the dizzying workplace. The lawyers get tongue-tied, fumble lines, struggle with phone chargers, and guzzle “train wine” to combat the nerves of their endless fight. However, this deeply human portrait of everyday heroes provides a sense that the larger war against Trump and the GOP will ultimately be won. This fight is about a united power and the stakes are so palpably high that anyone who witnesses the cases can’t help but feel the implications for the threat to further liberties.
The Fight also captures the necessity of the ACLU by confronting its contradictions. One segment of the film explores how the ACLU defended the rights of white supremacists to organize in Charlottesville, which spiralled into chaotic and fatal violence. There are no easy answers as the decision divides factions of the ACLU. Some lawyers argue that defending free speech means supporting someone’s right to express an opinion one doesn’t agree with. Other lawyers say that the right to free speech ends with hateful views and calls for violence. The film asks if the ACLU ultimately feeds the beast of polarization in America by assuming this one-size fits all approach to human rights. The question of who deserves a platform and who doesn’t is one with which the team wrestles throughout the doc.
While the filmmakers don’t quite enjoy the same fortuitousness of timing that made Weiner such a fascinating portrait of an individual doggedly scrapping in the face of inevitable defeat, they imbue The Fight with a similar breakneck energy of guerrilla-style verité. The Fight pulses with the frenetic pace of keeping up with the crazy train of the Trump administration. Editors Despres, Greg Finton, and Kim Roberts piece together the stories in a portrait that is both a sprint and a marathon. The film moves very quickly with each story adding to a larger fight. The film is emotionally exhausting as the game changes for the lawyers at the speed with which Trump unleashes a tweet, and The Fight resonates with the persistence of the heroes valiantly charging into war. Many documentaries capture the times under the Trump administration, but few films so accurately convey the exasperating insanity of keeping up with it.
The Fight opens in theatres and on demand July 31.