Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 30, 2020 6:41 am 
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The work of the attorneys of the ACLU

The ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, the country's most important independent organization protecting people's rights, has boomed since Trump became President. His swearing in opens this film. It has more to do, and it received more donor funds. It has taken over the whole building it occupies that has a view of the Statue of Liberty. They love their work, and we see why. I also love their work and consider it the most important charity I support. If you care about civil liberties, these dedicated people are your heroes. Without rights, nothing else much matters. This documentary isn't for the benefit of those who, for some perverse reason, oppose the ACLU. (It does support the rights of Nazis and white supremacists.) Despres and Kriegman simply aim to present a primer on what the ACLU does, its main issues, and the lawyers who do the work.

They have specialties. We meet Dale Ho: his focus is voting rights. Lee Gelert's is immigrant rights. Josh Block focuses on LGBT rights. Chase Strangio, a young ACLU lawyer who's a trans man, focuses on trans rights working with Joshua Block. Briditte Amiri is the Deputy Director of the ACLU's reproductive rights project.

Trump has revealed himself to be a white supremacist. He hates immigrants and wants to oust them and punish them. He hates abortion. Though this isn't the focus of this film, he also does all he can to promote his own reelection.

He hates trans people. The issue Chase and Josh are focused on now is the push to ban trans people from the military. The case they're focused on is "Stone v. Trump," in which the litigant is Brock Stone, a Petty Officer First Class in the United States Navy who has served over twelve years. On this and related cases rest the project of outlawing the Trump attempt to ban trans people from the military. Those opposint Bock in the military want to "erase trans people from public life," an ACLU lawyer says.

Dale Ho's concern in the film is the Department of Commerce. Trump's Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross, an old multi-millionaire known as "the King of Bankruptcy," heads a Trump Administration effort to introduce a key question - the "citizenship question" - into the census questionnaire. We see Ross harshly questioned at a Congressional hearing by, among others, the distinguished longtime Baltimore representative , the late Elijah Cummings. This would be a major Republican electoral victory because non-US citizens would be afraid to participate for fear of being persecuted, and the rights and needs of districts with a large undocumented population - 6.5 million is the number mentioned - would be unrepresented. Six states stand the risk of losing representatives in Congress. "Is another more important?" asks Dale Ho. Trump says in speeches that only citizens vote, but this is clearly not the issue. The census is not just for citizens. It's for the US population, which includes many non-citizens. The film points the census was used in WWII to intern thousands of Japanese.

An extremely poignant issue concerning Lee Gelert is "Ms L v. ICE," about separation of non-citizens from their children on arrival. Ms L and her daughter were fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and upon arrival here, were held for five months 2,000 miles apart from each other. Even small children have been systematically taken from their parents and sent into detention elsewhere, causing permanent psychological damage. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC breaks down talking abut this. Such cruelty has given rise to a movement. Incidentally the film points out many issues are "cyclical" - voting rights, racial equality, and other issues championed and won decades ago are back in the news, issues that must be fought for again. A demonstrator's sigh reads: "No Ban No Wall No Separations No detentions No Raids No ICE NO HATE NO FEAR." 1,995 minors are separated from 1,940 adults, at this point in the film. Gelert is also concerned with Trump's various efforts from his first days in office to ban whole countries and religions - Muslims - from entry into the US.

The "Zero Tolerance" policy of Trump's administration with its Draconian separation of parents and their children, such an evidently cruel action, has sparked a backlash.

From time to time we see Trump speaking to his base, spewing hate for foreigners, for immigrants, and speaking about the "very fine people" on both sides in the Charlottesville demonstrations and riot. The ACLU took the case of "Unite the Right" when they were denied the right to demonstrate by the Charlottesville city council. We see David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan leader, saying: "We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump." Since there were many serious injuries and one death resulting from this provocative demonstration and its liberal opponents, this has been a difficult moment for the ACLU.

Current ACLU Legal Director David Cole (2016- ) points out that the organization doesn't just defend people they like. The far right provocateur Milo Yannopoulis is a client. So is Westboro Baptist Church, which marches with signs saying "God Hates Fags." So is Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric. And so were the Nazis at Skokie, Illinois.

The ACLU gets a lot of hate mail, cards, letters, calls, and other messages accusing the lawyers individually of being - lots of nasty things. They're shown listening and reading: they think they need to know about their opposition and not live in "a bubble." The ACLU is dealing with bigots. Fear and hate and bigotry are often behind the issues ACLU lawyers fight for. It just happens that currently there is a blatant bigot in the White House.

All this, and we have not heard anything about the US Supreme Court. We see (indirectly) Brigitte Amiri and others arguing with three judges in a court about the "Garza v. Hagan" with success; they learn that "Jane Doe" has been given freedom to seek an abortion, and they drink "train wine" while riding on the train to celebrate. But this is only only one case, of many pregnant women ICE is seeking to prevent from having abortions. The ACLU must, and it does, pursue a class action suit in the matter.

Thus a big issue covered in this film is the makeup of the Supreme Court. The crisis comes with Judge Anthony Kennedy's June 2018 announcement of his retirement. Brigitte Amiri tells her daughter what it means: "This just made mommie's work much harder." Judge Kennedy is the pivotal liberal vote on the Court. He is replaced by Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Later, this film follows the various ACLU lawyers as they conduct "moot" practice pleading and argue the big actual cases and see them set fourth to argue key issues, including Dale Hio's embarking on his first appearance before the Supreme Court on the Census Question issue; Lee Gelert in San Diego to argue on "child separation, Josh Bock in Baltimore to argue the new anti-trans policy in the military; Brigitte Amiri in Washington, DC to argue for the right to an abortion for women held by ICE. The interwoven scenes show their loneliness, their nervousness, and their passion. Lee Gelert must address MSNBC just at the moment when he learns the court has uphold Trump's Muslim ban. Later, he looks much happier when he learns, despite a battery-depleted phone, that a federal judge has ruled strongly on his side in the "Family Separation" case. The class action for abortion rights in custody wins, and the district court blocks the Transgender Military ban. Hugs and smiles all around, above all of little kids reunited with their parents: we see a lot of them captured on camera. But the battle goes on. The Trump Administration issues a new order that transgender people may continue to serve in the military, but no new ones may enlist.

These issues are tremendously important and seeing these lawyers fight their cases and win them is an amazing feeling; it gives one hope. The film takes too long making its way from bland to exciting. It ought to have delved deeper into history beyond the Nazis in Skokie and the Japanese internment camps during the War. The presentation of lawyers and cases also shifts around a lot from project to project, from lawyer to lawyer, and sometimes it's hard to follow as it does so. There might also have been deeper focus on one case and lawyer at a time. The film follows the lawyers in key moments of their work, but it could have delved more into their lives and who they are. Bit despite these quibbles, this is nonetheless a most welcome and essential film.

These fights go on. The battle to defend democracy never ends. Noting is sure, nothing is sacred. In 2019 (after most of this film was made) the Trump administration argued in the Supreme Court that anti-discrimination laws should not apply to LGBT people. At least 1.300 children remain separated from their parents by ICE. The persecution of trans people goes on. All of these fights must be pursued in the streets, as well as in the courts. In fact we see Chase Strangio speaking before a cheering crowd in Washington Square.

The Fight, 96 mins., produced by Kerry Washington, debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, and showed in the fests at Miami and Wisconsin. Its pandemic online-only release by Magnolia is July 31, 2020, and it will be shown, among others, under the auspices of the Roxie in San Francisco. Metascore 67%.


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