The ACLU’s Fight for Constitutional Rights

Courthouse dramas frequently revolve around questions of guilt or innocence, as in the old Perry Mason TV series, or focus on magistrates deciding in favor of a plaintiff or defendant, like on Judge Judy-type programs. Sometimes, however, the stakes are much higher, involving great moral principles, as in the classics To Kill a Mockingbird (racial justice) and Judgment at Nuremberg (Nazi war crimes).

The Fight falls into the latter category, ironically opening with audio of Donald Trump being sworn in as President, pledging to “defend” the Constitution. The documentary follows several intrepid attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union as they struggle to preserve Constitutional rights from the legal onslaught unleashed by the Trump regime. 

According to press notes, for the first time in its often illustrious 100-year history, the ACLU has granted filmmakers access to its offices in the Manhattan headquarters of America’s foremost defender of the Bill of Rights.

The Fight reminds us all that, regardless of its popularity, there is a good reason to remember which amendment America’s founders placed first.

Co-directors Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, creators of 2016’s Weiner (the award-winning documentary about the disgraced Congressman), provide us with an illuminating behind-the-scenes look at the nonprofit organization founded in 1920 to “preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” 

In The Fight, the ACLU, which has filed 173 lawsuits against the Trump Administration, picks up the gauntlet the despotic President has thrown down. 

Anti-immigration bombast and policies have been the signature features of Trump’s racist rule, and The Fight opens with masses of people spontaneously protesting the so-called “Muslim Ban” at JFK Airport shortly after Trump’s inauguration. In news clips we see Trump at his pre-pandemic cruelest, ranting: “We don’t want them in our country. We’re throwing them the hell out!” 

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow breaks down live on the air, while reporting on authorities pitilessly splitting apart parents and children. Inclusion of this footage reminds The Fight’s viewers about what’s really riding on the outcome of the ACLU’s legal derring-do.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the project’s Access to the Courts Program, is the organization’s point person on immigrant and refugee rights in the nonfiction film. The Fight shows Gelernt spearheading the valiant crusade against Trump’s despicable family separation measures. 

Brigitte Amiri, deputy director at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, finds herself in the crosshairs of three gunsights: immigration, abortion, and the rights of underage females. Amiri contests the Trump regime’s ban on the termination of pregnancies by unaccompanied immigrant minors.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, contends with voting rights, another hot-button issue as Trump endeavors to move America in a more authoritarian direction. In The Fight, Ho argues before the Supreme Court against Trump’s proposed insertion of a citizenship question in the U.S. census. He notes that this will deter non-citizens and relatives they live with (who may be U.S. citizens) from answering the Census, which could cause states to lose seats in Congress.     

Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual

Transgender & HIV Projects, and Chase Strangio, deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, combat Trump’s twisted, tweeted edict forbidding transgender people from serving in the armed services. (Strangio, who was Chelsea Manning’s counsel for the whistleblower’s lawsuit against the military for discriminatory denial of health treatment while in custody, has written three pieces for The Progressive since early 2019.)

The documentary includes some animation (perhaps because filming inside courts is often prohibited) and a brief split-screen montage presents archival footage from the ACLU’s fabled history, including: 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, which struck down prohibitions against interracial marriage; 1973’s Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed abortion rights; and 1978’s defense of Nazis’ right to march in the then-predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. 

Later, in a segment on the 2017 neo-Nazi rally at Charlottesville, Virginia—where the ACLU provided legal support for white nationalists—National Legal Director David Cole explains the group’s guiding philosophy: By defending the First Amendment for those on the left and the right alike, free speech is preserved for all, whereas “Trump would only silence one side.” 

Like the Skokie defense forty years earlier, many people question the ACLU’s role in defending the Charlottesville participants; some even implicate the organization in the car-ramming murder of anti-racist demonstrator Heather Heyer, an issue The Fight deals with directly.

Although this well-crafted ninety-six-minute documentary grapples with a number of hefty subjects, there are emotional glimpses wherein the ACLU’s courtroom gladiators reveal their personal sides. 

Ho frets about arguing his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court and is seen rehearsing his opening statement in front of a mirror. Strangio laments the heavy load placed on his shoulders which, among many other demands, includes having to teach his colleagues about all things transgender. Most poignantly, Gelernt bemoans the pressure he’s under because it’s “so horrendous what’s happening. All these little kids just being terrorized” by Trump’s family separation cruelty. 

Actress Kerry Washington, who dealt with slavery in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained and police brutality against Black people in an episode of the ABC-TV series Scandal, co-produced The Fight. (Unfortunately the film doesn’t include any cases involving police excessive use of force against African Americans, which would have made it timelier, although the high court’s recent ruling affirming LGBTQ rights mirrors Strangio and Block’s onscreen case.) 

Washington, a veteran activist, is quoted in the press notes as calling the ACLU’s legal eagles “our real-life superheroes . . . our David to the Goliath of the higher-ups. They take on power structures to try to uphold the rights of all people, instead of prioritizing the rights of a few. And no matter who’s in power, they’ve consistently fought that battle for a hundred years. During that time, there’s never been a single President of the United States who has not been held accountable by the ACLU.”

The Fight is a fitting, well-deserved tribute to the advocacy organization founded a century ago by Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and more, “Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself,” as the ACLU’s motto puts it, and that is perhaps more relevant than ever in the age of Donald Trump.

Yet it’s worth remembering that the ACLU has just over 1.5 million members, compared to nearly five million for the National Rifle Association, according to the groups’ websites. It makes one wonder: Which Constitutional amendment do Americans cherish more? The Fight reminds us all that, regardless of its popularity, there is a good reason to remember which amendment America’s founders placed first.

​The Fight, which won a Special Jury Award for ​Social Impact Filmmaking at Sundance, will be released in theaters and On Demand July 31, 2020. For more info, visit the film’s website

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