By turns tragic, infuriating, enlightening, and moving, The Fight follows four civil rights cases brought against the Trump administration by the ACLU. This extraordinary documentary film from the directorial team behind 2016 hit Weiner shows us in vivid, vital detail what is really at stake in Donald Trump’s historic assault on civil rights.
The Fight has a straightforward, bold premise: the Trump administration is the biggest and most wide-ranging threat to civil rights in America’s recent history, and it is the job of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to uphold these rights in the courts and through the judicial system. It’s a strong, inspiring film, dealing persuasively with the contentious, difficult subject matter. Condensing what could be, in less capable hands, an overwhelming amount of dry technical detail into a remarkably clear, lively, and focused piece of filmmaking, the team – Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg – interweave the development of four specific cases into a compelling picture of the life and work of the ACLU.
It looks at family separation at America’s borders (immigration rights), at abortion access (reproductive rights), at the ban on transgender military personnel (LGBTQ+ rights), and at the attempt to amend the US census with a question about citizenship (voting rights). The film’s biggest success is its ability to synthesise a clear assessment of the political and historical contexts of each case with both a layperson-friendly explanation of the legal issues at stake and, perhaps most importantly, an unflinching focus on the ordinary lives at the heart of each legal battle.
A deserving winner of the Sundance Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking, it is very well put together indeed. It has a slick, vibrant, and accomplished visual style, a pitch-perfect soundtrack, and some moments of genuine humour. It also, less surprisingly perhaps, has some moments of considerable emotional impact. Its exploration of Trump’s attempts to establish a Muslim ban, for instance, is particularly powerful, showing us forcefully that the civil rights battle remains a matter of life and death.
But The Fight is not uncritically celebratory of the ACLU. There are some significant moments in which members reflect upon the consequences of their failures and reckon with the knotty effects of painful controversies. The film’s examination of ACLU support for the Unite the Right march at Charlottesville in 2017, for example, is particularly important in this respect. The uncomfortable complexity of the issues at stake here is handled with sensitivity, intelligence, and tact, and reflects the filmmakers’ commitment to providing a nuanced and honest account of the ACLU.
Importantly, the film refuses its audience the luxury of being able to come away from the film feeling that there is nothing more to be done. The issues remain, after all, with us every day, and the struggles look set to intensify before the year is out. A documentary of tremendous urgency and compassion, The Fight is essential viewing for anybody who wants to understand the present political moment.
The Fight is available on digital platforms from 31 July. thefightfilm.co.uk