After a Sundance Film Festival screening of the documentary The Fight, chronicling the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal battles against the Trump administration over the last three years, a group of visibly moved audience members were gushing. “That made me want to sign my next paycheck over to the ACLU,” one said.
“That’s so great,” Kerry Washington says when she hears this, cracking a smile and laughing. “Can I have their email to follow-up?”
Washington produced the documentary with her company Simpson Street, which counts Scandal, Native Son, and the Anita Hill biopic Confirmation among its credits. That the room erupts with laughter alongside the Hollywood star isn’t out of place.
The Fight, which has played to numerous standing ovations in Park City, certainly doesn’t flinch at exposing the horrors of the administration’s historic assault on civil liberties.
Following four brilliant and endearingly humble lawyers—Washington likens them to the Avengers—as they argue cases dealing with immigrant family separation, blocking abortion access, the trans military ban, and the census citizenship question, the film is surprisingly funny for the gravity of its subject matter. But above all, it is inspiring and at a time when rampant bleakness seems to be snuffing out the fire beneath anything of the sort.
“There’s a struggle with a kind of fatigue that I think is always at the edges of our experience of the news and politics today, and there’s a real need to resist that,” says Josh Kriegman, who co-directed the movie with Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres. “The film is an invitation for people to be hopeful and to engage in the fight that’s going on.”
“It’s also an invitation to step into your own ability to be a hero in your community,” Washington adds. “And realize that because we are in a democracy, we all have the ability to have an impact in the world that we live in. We just want people to know how much they matter as they look toward these incredible superheroes and know that they also have the capacity to create change.”
The Fight answers the question of whether it’s possible to create an uplifting movie about the Trump administration. But its immediacy and the crucial nature of the stakes involved pulse through every scene.
“These stories and these topics—LGBT rights, abortion rights, immigrant rights and family separation, and voting rights—are the most critical battlefields and the most important stories that we could possibly be engaged with right now,” says Despres. “We definitely want this film to be part of the national conversation as the country heads towards the big choice in November.”
Steinberg, Kriegman, and Despres are best known for 2016’s Weiner, which examined New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s scandal-ridden fall from grace, proving that they know their way around a political documentary. But they’re also the team behind the Showtime docuseries Couples Therapy, in which real partners laid bare their most intimate issues in actual counseling sessions, proving they know how to make real people—ACLU lawyers, for example—feel comfortable and authentic in front of a camera.
The film itself was actually born from an unexpected encounter with one of those lawyers.
In January 2017, Steinberg joined the thousands who gathered on the steps of the Brooklyn courthouse on the night the president issued his Muslim ban. ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt was inside arguing for an emergency order to free those who were being detained at airports, many of them having no idea about a ban that was issued while they were in mid-air.
Footage that Steinberg filmed of Gelernt exiting the courthouse after securing a victory, a mixture of relief, exhaustion, and elation on his face as the crowd chanted “A-C-L-U!” as if rooting on a sports team, would eventually begin the documentary that would premiere at Sundance three years later. “In that moment I recognized that next to this guy was where we needed to be,” she says.
The next day, she rushed into the office she shares with Kriegman and Despres and made a beeline to the whiteboard on which they brainstorm ideas about future projects. She erased everything on the board and just wrote “The Fight.” She explained that they were going to get in with the ACLU and tell the stories of these lawyers fighting against Trump. If there’s a word that means faster than “immediate,” that’s how quickly her partners were on board.
Gelernt would end up being one of the ACLU lawyers the filmmakers follow in The Fight, as he argued a federal lawsuit seeking to reunite an asylum-seeking refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and her 7-year-old daughter, who were torn apart and detained at centers 2,000 miles apart.
The film also follows Dale Ho, who challenged the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census at the U.S. Supreme Court, and Joshua Block and Chase Strangio, who were battling Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from serving in the military. There’s also Brigitte Amiri, who was defending 17-year-old Jane Doe, a detained immigrant who was pregnant by rape but was being denied access to an abortion by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“As if the stakes weren’t high enough already,” Amiri laughs when asked what kind of pressure being filmed put on her already intense work.
Part of what makes The Fight so engaging is that it follows these lawyers not just from their offices to the courthouse, but even to their homes.
“At times it’s all very dire, but it's also fun to watch these unbelievably skilled lawyers doing something incredibly difficult while trying to wrangle their unruly children, get their kids into snowsuits, assemble IKEA furniture, and charge their phones,” Despres says. “The humanity of it in contrast with the incredible stakes is what makes the movie really engaging.”
Capturing that humanity is invaluable to the film’s impact. There’s discussion about how people feel so emotionally bruised and defeated by the darkness of the news that they can become apathetic. But worse than that are those who react with resignation, defeated into assuming a certain kind of hopelessness. The Fight aims to swing the pendulum in the other direction.
“I think people feel like, ‘Oh my god, I have to become an ACLU lawyer to make change,’” Amiri says. “And that’s not what people have to do to make change. Put your congressional representatives on speed dial and every time you see something that makes you upset, call them. Start engaging in state and local politics, find out who your politicians are, and have your voices heard. Whether it’s stuffing envelopes or coming to marches, there’s something kind of at every level.”
“For me, a lot of making this movie was therapy,” Despres says, explaining that he was tired of sulking in response to the news and making “an action-comedy-thriller documentary” made him feel better.
“I think that if people get involved in that same spirit, in terms of getting people to vote, calling their congressperson—whatever it is that they want to do—there’s no reason to do it in a spirit of despair,” he says. “It can be fun. Yeah, the resistance can be a party!”
Yes, the stakes are high. Overwhelmingly so. The audiences at Sundance would burst into tears every time a case’s decision would come down, and that’s just after a CliffsNotes introduction to the work involved through a 90-minute documentary condensing three years of work.
“It’s a real David-versus-Goliath story,” Steinberg says. “We want to show the world what it really looks like to fight these big, epic battles. And it’s funny, and it’s hard, and it’s challenging, but I think it’s something that we can all relate to.”
Washington preemptively addresses any skepticism to the relatability of the work of people so impressive and dedicated that the filmmakers use the word “superheroes” to describe them seven different times throughout our conversation. She offers as an example the fact that she’s still friends with people that she met when she was working with the first Obama campaign in 2008.
“When you jump in and participate, there’s nothing like it,” she says. “So we hope that people realize that they can have that. You can have that feeling of success and victory and service to the people that you love and care about. You can have it even if you go and stuff envelopes at the ACLU. Then you’re a part of that win.”
Being involved with a film like The Fight, she says, is a natural extension of a mission she’s had with her career stretching even back to the beginning, with her breakout turn in 2001’s Save the Last Dance.
“I wanted to make myself as useful as possible in the storytelling tradition,” she says. “That, I realized, was a political act, because I was a woman and because I was black. And so as I would sort of carve out spaces in projects, I would really fight for these characters to be seen.”
Take Save the Last Dance, for example. “I realized, oh, I’m gonna be playing this teen mom from inner-city Chicago. I want to make audiences walk away feeling like they have had access to a person that they put on the periphery, that they disenfranchised. I want them to fall in love with Chenille and want to be her friend.”
“I realized that was a political act as much as it was an artistic, creative act,” she continues. “So for me, there’s always been a tie-in in the stories that I choose to be a part of telling. Because for me it’s always been about trying to affirm the idea that we all matter.”
The Fight, activating as it is, is hardly a propaganda film. A significant amount of time is spent explaining that the ACLU fights for the rights of everyone. That means the organization has represented the interests of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, anti-gay protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church, and the white nationalists who staged the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017 that resulted in the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer.
“There hasn’t been a single president since the organization has been founded that hasn’t been sued by the ACLU,” Washington says. “Presidents you’ve loved and presidents you haven’t. They’re here to protect people, no matter who’s in power, whether you agree with them or not.”
That said, the organization has filed an unprecedented number of lawsuits against the Trump administration, more than any administration before. Amiri explains that before Trump was elected, the ACLU had about 400,000 members. Now it’s skyrocketed to 1.8 million people, all activated to fight against the administration’s policies.
Even the way the organization is thought of has changed. Because of the nature of her field, many of the states Amiri would travel to to challenge restrictive abortion laws were states hostile to her position. She wouldn’t tell people that she worked for the ACLU. Now, people everywhere seem to be grateful for her work and galvanized for change.
And, she says, the stakes really are more severe than they’ve ever been.
“We’ve seen the steady chipping away at the right to abortion, but now we’re seeing the attempts to ban abortion in the hopes that Roe v. Wade could be overturned,” she says. “And I don’t think it is a wild prospect that could happen given the changes in the judiciary. There’s no question that things are feeling very bleak in terms of the federal constitutional right to abortion.”
The entire reproductive rights and reproductive justice movement is trying to think of ways to ensure access to abortion should the worst-case scenario happen, she says. “We don’t know what the future holds and no one has a crystal ball, so we have to keep doing what we’re doing and hope that things turn around.”
In other words: Keep up the fight.