The Trump administration has kept lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union busy.
The group has filed more than 100 lawsuits over initiatives to roll back what the ACLU considers to be key rights of Americans. But a new documentary, “The Fight,” focuses on four areas: immigrant, reproductive, voting and LGBT rights.
The filmmakers are a team of three, Josh Krigeman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli B. Despres, whose previous documentary was “Weiner,” the 2016 tale of the rise and fall of New York congressman Anthony Weiner — and his ill-fated attempt at a comeback by running for mayor.
As with “Weiner,” the filmmakers have incredible access to the inner workings of the ACLU. The cast of characters includes Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer for the immigration case Ms. L. v ICE, dealing with family separation at the border. Also included is Brigitte Amiri, who is the lead lawyer for Garza v. Hargan, dealing with a teenage refugee who is seeking an abortion but is denied access by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Then there’s Chase Strangio, who is working with fellow lawyer Josh Block to battle the Trump administration’s efforts to ban military service by transgender people, with the lawsuit Stone v, Trump. But the most lively combatant is Dale Ho, who argues against the Trump administration’s efforts to require a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.
The directors weave together these tales within the ACLU, from the early debates over whether to take particular cases and then how to present those cases to the court. We see all the late-night hours, the meetings, the private lives of the lawyers who are working on the cases. We see the hate mail that they get. We see the stress and the toll of taking on cases that are unpopular with a large part of the U.S. population. Nevertheless, they persist.
If you think this might add up to an uncritical profile of the ACLU, you should know that the documentary also looks into the organization’s defense of the white nationalist group that needed a permit to march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 — a march that led to a counterdemonstration and the death of one of those protesters.
The decision to defend the rights of white nationalists is in line with the ACLU’s longstanding approach to civil rights for everyone. But with the rising white nationalism under the Trump administration, the ACLU faced significant internal debate over whether to argue for the nationalists’ rights in court.
Still, the documentary focuses on cases are typically described as liberal — and the men and women who fight for those rights.
Ho, especially, is enjoyable to watch as he practices his Supreme Court arguments over the Census in his hotel room. He has to figure out how to frame the case, citing precedents and other matters. And he has a special reason for wanting to argue this particular case. As an Asian-American, he’s aware that the Census in the 1940s was used to identify Japanese immigrants who were eventually sent to internment camps during World War II.
You probably know how Ho’s case turns out at the Supreme Court, but it’s still fun to watch as the complicated verdict comes in — and how news of that verdict spreads around the offices of the ACLU.
These days, such victories are particularly savory.
“The Fight” is streaming at the Austin Film Society’s website, austinfilm.org.