The last few years of American politics have been nightmarish, exhausting and mind-numbing, so reliving them through a documentary might seem like the least appealing thing to do right now.
“The Fight,” which will be released Friday, begins just days after President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration when demonstrators around the country packed streets and airports to protest the initial version of his Muslim ban. From there, the documentary is a whirlwind, covering some of the biggest, gravest and best-known civil rights cases of the last three years, including the disputes over the Trump administration separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border and its banning transgender soldiers from the military.
But told through the stories of five attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union as they take on these and other major legal battles, “The Fight” goes beyond the headlines, press conferences and cable news footage. By giving the audience a behind-the-scenes view of the lawyers’ work, directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres have crafted an engaging and candid portrait of the ways politics can be deeply personal.
“The thing that makes us excited about telling these stories is just viewing these big epic events through the personal lens,” Steinberg said in an interview. “Who are these people at the front line? What does this fight for civil rights really look like from the inside?”
It turns out these people are experienced civil rights lawyers at one of the most prominent legal organizations in the country — and also human beings just trying to do their best.
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, led the case against the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which was decided by the Supreme Court last year. In the film, when Ho reveals this is the first time he’s ever argued before the high court, there’s a look of sheer terror on his face. The night before the oral argument, we see him in front of his hotel room mirror, practicing his opening statement over and over again, swearing when he flubs his lines.
On the surface, “The Fight” is a sharp contrast from the filmmakers’ previous work, “Weiner,” which chronicled the attempted comeback of former U.S. representative and then-New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner and his infamous sexting scandal. Released in early 2016, “Weiner” now feels like a tale from several lifetimes ago. Its focus on the performative bombast of politics is a very different angle from that of “The Fight,” which is more concerned with procedure and the way progress is often won in increments.
Yet as documentarians, they approached the two films with a similar vision, aiming to take viewers beyond “the mediated view of the world, the television version, the news cycle version,” Despres said.
While it’s clear the filmmakers deeply admire the attorneys’ work, they don’t shy away from at least touching on some of the ACLU’s more contentious stands, which don’t always fall along ideological lines. In 2017, when the filmmakers were following the lawyers, the ACLU chose to defend the protest rights of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who went on to lead that summer’s violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. As seen in the documentary, the decision caused much internal tension among ACLU leaders.
These moments of candor, introspection and, at times, levity are what make “The Fight” compelling, and not simply a grim summary of our political hellscape. Naturally, there’s a lot of drama and suspense watching these events unfold. But the filmmakers also chose to include many seemingly mundane instances and “very relatable struggles,” as Steinberg described them. Throughout the film, we see the lawyers call their clients while parenting their children, deal with various modes of transportation, duck into Starbucks to charge a rapidly dying phone, and refresh SCOTUSBlog for the latest Supreme Court decisions.
What helped, Despres said, was that the ACLU attorneys “were not sort of your Brooks Brothers buttoned-up law firm lawyers.” The filmmakers were able to build the documentary around these personal moments because the attorneys didn’t hold back when the cameras were rolling, expressing how they were really feeling and wearing their emotions on their sleeves.
In one scene, Chase Strangio reflects on the weight he feels as one of the few prominent transgender civil rights lawyers and what the lack of trans representation has meant for him.
“When I became a lawyer, there weren’t that many trans lawyers. So then I had to be doing a lot of different types of things,” he says. “It was like, go do this legislative advocacy, go learn how to be on TV, go do this, go do that.”
After a pause, he quietly adds: “Go train the ACLU on what it means to be trans.”
While the attorneys in “The Fight” have taken center stage in some of the biggest legal disputes of our time, they’re also clear-eyed about how they’re a few among many more players on a much larger stage. Late in the film, Ho refers to how the ACLU has become a popular symbol of “the resistance” against Trump.
“A lot of people have been running up to us, saying things like, you know, ‘You’re our hope against the forces that have put Trump in power, and you’re going to be what’s going to stop this thing.’ And I think that’s wrong. Like, we’re not gonna be able to stop this thing ourselves. I mean, we’re like two and a half floors of a building in New York, right?” he says. “It’s not going to be lawyers and courts. It’s going to be people who turn the ship around.”
“The Fight” will be released on streaming and on-demand platforms on July 31.