With the national election less three months away, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend some portion of every day saying a silent prayer (to whom, I’m not exactly sure) that things don’t get any worse than they already are before our struggling democracy can do what it does best and reconfigure the make-up of those in elected office. Unfortunately, it seems the current administration and its collaborators are intent on doing as much damage as they possibly can before then, so a film like The Fight arrives at a most opportune moment. From filmmakers Eli B. Despres and Josh Kriegman, The Fight (a special Jury Award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for social impact filmmaking) reminds us that all is not lost, that there remains an opportunity to right even the worst wrongs and that, with enough know-how, perseverance and sheer gumption, even the most insurmountable obstacles can be overcome.
The Fight follows four significant cases brought by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in the last few years against various egregious policies and edicts from the federal government, and in this way the filmmakers create both a solid narrative structure—we meet each of the four lead attorneys on the cases, as well as some of the key players—and establish the breadth of issues in which the ACLU finds itself involved. Despres and Kriegman include just enough background on the ACLU (founded in 1920) to give the appropriate amount of context. Brief interviews with leadership remind us that the ACLU is in the business of defending all civil liberties, not just “those we agree with.” (“The Skokie Case,” the 1997 court battle in which the ACLU represented a neo-Nazi group’s right to free speech, is included as an example.) But the filmmakers smartly understand that they can’t possibly tell the ACLU’s entire hundred-year history in a single feature-length documentary, so they quickly get back to the focus, robust as it is, with four very different cases at its center.
The cases represent the most prominent ways this government has tried to infringe on its citizens’ constitutional rights: through immigration (specifically, the despicable policy on parent/child separation); reproductive rights (as a woman detained by ICE seeks to have a legal abortion); LGBTQ rights (a ban on transgender individuals in the military); and the 2020 Census (whether the government can include a question about citizenship in the national head count). In just the few years since the 2016 election, all of these issues have impacted millions of Americans, and through this inspiring, energizing documentary, we meet the people heeding the call to fight back. Attorneys Lee Gelernt (immigration), Brigitte Amiri (reproductive rights), Josh Block and Chase Strangio (LGBTQ rights), and Dale Ho (the Census) are each profiled as the ordinary people they are—complete with families and personal lives as well as quirks and senses of humor—even as they rise to the challenge of speaking for so many of their fellow Americans in their respective fights for preserving our rights, demanding better of our government and holding bad actors accountable.
Juggling four stories at once isn’t always easy, and the filmmakers (edited by Despres along with Greg Finton and Kim Roberts) use some clever if over-stimulating techniques to balance the storylines and transition between them, including four-way split screens and on-screen text to keep us up to speed on the latest developments in these sometimes very fast-moving pursuits. It gives the whole thing the feel of a concert doc, and depending on your political leanings, it could be an apt tone to set as the lawyers each become a sort of rock star in their own right. Sure, Gelernt never seems to have a charged phone (or a charger!) when he needs one, but dammit if he doesn’t go all-in for his client Ms. L, separated from her 7-year-old daughter for more than five months because of the government’s draconian (and illegal!) policies. Watching Ho prep for his first-ever argument before the Supreme Court is as endearing as it is inspiring, reminding us that those on the front-lines of these essential battles for justice are just fellow citizens who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances (with a few F-bombs dropped in for good measure).
The Fight uses the natural progression of these legal battles to build its narrative, and as the film draws to its conclusion, the third act is dedicated to witnessing the decisions in each of the cases we’ve now become invested in. Those who follow these things in real time won’t be surprised by the various outcomes, and the film’s biggest success isn’t in how it recounts the facts as such. Instead, the most powerful moments are those the camera captures of the attorneys themselves learning of the decisions as they’re handed down. Amiri and her colleague, frequently commuting from New York City to Washington, DC, by high-speed train to argue their case, indulge in some well-deserved “train wine” when they learn of their victory. Gelernt is off-camera as we see Ms. L reunited with her daughter, but one can imagine his response in the moment is as emotional as ours watching it. Block and Strangio worked in tandem to push back against the Transgender Military Ban, and while the decision isn’t a clear victory, the film reminds us that it did prompt the administration to adjust their (still troubling) policy in response.
Most moving of all is Ho’s genuinely surprised, unbridled joy as we watch it dawn on him that the Court has sided in his favor, making it impossible for the government to add a question of citizenship to the (then upcoming, currently in progress) census. Supreme Court decisions can often be quite dense, so it’s understandable that at first, Ho is under the impression that he’s lost—likely a case of expectations set low enough so that, should they be met, the shock of disappointment isn’t so great. As it becomes clear that in fact the decision is what they’d been hoping for, the film truly becomes something special as it allows us a glimpse into the humanity of a dedicated group of people doing the heavy lifting to defend our rights. The work is grueling, often thankless and elicits its fair share of hate mail from detractors. But when it works, when it truly works and all that effort, all the sleepless nights and countless hours of hard work make their way through an imperfect system to deliver a truly just outcome, it all instantly becomes worth it.
There’s nothing any of us can do to will the election to arrive sooner, and besides getting out and actually voting, there’s not much any of us can do individually to fight back against attempts to delay, discredit or otherwise tamper with its results. A film like The Fight reminds us that, despite so much evidence to the contrary these days, there remains an organization—comprising ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things—at the ready to defend, uphold and further codify those unalienable rights the Founders saw fit to draft into the Constitution. And in that, it’s a film that inspires each of us to keep up the fight ourselves, to keep speaking up, showing up and demanding better from ourselves and our leaders.
The Fight is now streaming as part of Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema program; a portion of your ticket purchase goes to support the theater during limited operations because of the pandemic.