The M.V. Film Society’s Documentary Week kicks off Monday, August 3, with “The Fight.” Directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres, this film examines four of the legal battles fought by American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, as well as the human side of the five ACLU lawyers who argue the cases. The first involves the Trump administration’s decree calling for separation of immigrant families. ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt works nonstop, neglecting his own family, in the effort to keep immigrant children with their parents. Along the way, viewers watch a child taken from her mother, while Gelernt files a case, Ms. L. v. ICE, just one among the 147 ACLU lawsuits against Trump’s post-election executive orders. Gelernt speaks to the media, illustrating the horrific side of family separation, where small children are left alone in detention centers. “Make sure the horror stays front and center,” he alerts the commentator before his interview.
Another case involves a pregnant 17-year-old, anonymous for safety reasons, at a refugee resettlement facility who is denied her right to have an abortion by Scott Lloyd, director of the resettlement facility. In a Jane Doe suit, attorney Brigitte Amiri confronts Lloyd when he says she “claimed” she was raped. Amiri argues that he had no reason to believe she wasn’t.
As director of the Voting Rights Project, attorney Dale Ho argues his case that the census not have a citizenship question before the Supreme Court. Viewers watch him rehearsing his argument, as well as spending time with his wife and children.
Not all successes are cause for celebration. In the case of LGBTQ rights and Trump’s dictum that transgender personnel cannot serve in the military, attorneys Joshua Block and Chase Strangio earn a victory at best Pyrrhic. The legal decision allows transgender military personnel to remain, but denies trans people the right to enlist.
Nor are all ACLU positions positive. Their decision to support free speech for the Tiki torch white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 was not heralded by all the ranks as a popular one. And there are plenty of unpleasant scenes of President Trump defending his anti-abortion position or claims about immigrants. “We don’t want them here,” he announces before crowds of supporters.
The structure of “The Fight” alternates the cases, and includes animated drawings to illustrate the ones where visuals are not available. The outcome in court does not arrive immediately, adding tension and showing how important the struggle to adjudicate can be. In the end, these ACLU lawyers win their cases.
The good news is how ACLU fundraising has risen dramatically. Income before Trump’s election amounted to nearly $3 million, while after his election, it rose to upwards of $120 million. Membership grew from 300,000 to almost 2 million. Unfortunately, neither of these facts are mentioned in the film.
“We just keep fighting,” says one attorney. “It’s what we do.”
“The Fight” is available online at mvfilmsociety.com.