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Film review: 'The Fight'

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Shining a spotlight on the critical work done by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the powerful new documentary “The Fight” follows several lawyers on the front lines of the organization’s many legal battles against the Trump administration.

Directed by Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking.

"The Fight" is an engaging look at the fight for democracy in our country, as the zippy editing hurtles us through four of the more than 160 lawsuits the ACLU has filed against the administration since Trump took office. Each of these cases centers on some of the most urgent issues currently facing our nation, including reproductive rights, rights of immigrants, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights.

With “Stone v. Trump,” lawyers Josh Block and Chase Strangio take up the fight against Trump’s sudden military ban against transgender servicemembers.

Brigitte Amiri handles “Garza v. Hargan,” a case to determine whether an undocumented teenage immigrant should be allowed legal access to an abortion.

“Ms. L v. ICE” sees lawyer Lee Gelernt stand against the government’s family separation policy. That case revolves around a mother who was separated from her 7-year-old child when she sought asylum in the United States after escaping certain death in her home country.



Finally, Dale Ho argues “Department of Commerce v. New York,” which concerns whether the Census Bureau is allowed to include a question about citizenship status on the 2020 census. That seemingly innocuous decision could have a catastrophic ripple effect on the country’s democratic process, and the case ends up reaching the highest court in the land.

Throughout the film, there's no mistaking which side of these arguments the filmmakers land on politically. One could say that “The Fight” preaches to the choir, but if ever there was a time to rally the choir, this is it.

And while the film might have benefitted from including some of the more complicated aspects of the ACLU’s history, it does delve into the ongoing debate within the organization over its ultimate role in the current political climate. Its lawyers can’t take on every case that comes to them, and difficult decisions sometimes need to be made.

The overarching mission of the ACLU is to “defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person by the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and laws of the United States."

That means the organization protects the rights of not just those whose views it agrees with, but everyone, period.

In 2017, the ACLU backed the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, defending the rights of white supremacists and various alt-right groups to gather and express their views.

That event infamously ended in the death of protestor Heather Heyer — along with serious injury to 19 others — and the film shows that many people at the ACLU are still grappling with the repercussions of those actions.

“The Fight” is first and foremost an effective inside look at the ACLU and how it functions. But it also offers some compelling insight into how the Trump administration works to achieve its own objectives. There’s a clear, calculated methodology in the way it wears down its opponents by unleashing a deluge of attacks on multiple fronts against the country’s most vulnerable communities. This isn’t exactly news, but it’s fascinating to see that strategy laid so bare.

As a result, the experience of watching “The Fight” is one that’s simultaneously inspiring and infuriating. It’s often emotional, and the sections dealing with the issues of family separation in particular will tear your heart out.

The filmmakers’ cameras capture the immense pressure on these lawyers, as they face an endless fight against the injustices being carried out every day in our nation.

But some of the film’s best scenes capture the subjects at their most human moments: letting nerves rattle them before heading into court, celebrating a hard-won victory with some “train wine,” or facing exhaustion and utter bewilderment at the mercy of an iPhone charger.

Too frequently it seems that these tenacious individuals are all that stand between us and the complete triumph of fascism. And just in case you’ve let all of this (gestures broadly at the currently-on-fire world) somehow escape your notice, “The Fight” offers up a potent reminder of exactly what’s at stake for our country come November.

“The Fight”
Directed by Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg
Now playing virtually at the Little Theatre

Adam Lubitow is a freelance film critic for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's arts & entertainment editor, at becca@rochester-citynews.com.