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Taking the fight to Trump: Documentary follows rights lawyers

Andrew Marszal

Agence France-Presse

Los Angeles, United States  /  Tue, July 28, 2020  /  02:00 pm
Taking the fight to Trump: Documentary follows rights lawyers

US President Donald Trump arrives for the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

Immigrant families separated, battles over abortion, voter suppression, and a transgender military ban: the Trump administration has been a frantically busy period for US rights lawyers, a new documentary shows.

To be released July 31 as Donald Trump gears up his bid for re-election, "The Fight" follows five lawyers behind-the-scenes as they contend with some of the US president's most controversial policies.

The feature-length movie shot over three years depicts a classic David-and-Goliath battle between the federal government and the frontline civil rights organization ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union.)

"We're like, two-and-a-half floors of a building in New York, right?" says ACLU voting rights director Dale Ho in the movie, referring to the headquarter offices where much of the footage is shot. 

"Against the power of the federal government and this massive political movement, we're not going to solve it," said Ho.

But as the film itself shows, the ACLU is no minnow and has scored a number of significant victories -- including Ho's own success in the Supreme Court opposing a question about citizenship being added to this year's US census.

In a major blow to Trump, Ho argued that the question's presence was intended to suppress participation by immigrant communities.

The movie shows Ho's meticulous and nervous preparation in front of a hotel room mirror the night before court -- and his office's jubilant ovation after the ruling. But the lawyer is wary of dwelling on these wins.

"Most of what we've been doing over the last three years has been playing defense, right?" Ho told journalists at a virtual press conference this month. 

"I'm trying to prevent, stop, mitigate these human rights and civil rights atrocities that have been committed by this administration and others."

Read also: Joaquin Phoenix documentary helps end Ukraine hostage standoff

'Still in the fight' 

The movie is directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, the filmmaking trio behind a 2016 Oscar-nominated fly-on-the-wall documentary about disgraced New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.

Like "Weiner," "The Fight" drew positive reviews after premiering at the Sundance festival in January, and emphasizes its subjects' personal quirks -- hot-shot lawyers who struggle to charge a cellphone, and toast victory on the way home from court with a glass of "train wine."

While the ACLU has filed well over 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration, the film focuses on just four.

Other shocking cases include a 17-year-old immigrant at a US detention center prevented from aborting a baby conceived from rape, and the notorious separation of young children from their parents after crossing the southern border.

It also touches on some of the ACLU's own controversies -- not least its defense of white supremacists' right to protest in Charlottesville in 2017, which ended in a counter-protester's murder. 

And not all of the ACLU battles in the movie end in success, underlining the ongoing fight.

For Lee Gelernt, the senior ACLU lawyer who won an initial block on Trump's "Muslim ban" seven days into office and later campaigned against child separation, the fight will go on beyond November's vote -- regardless of who wins.

"I think there's probably a misimpression that if Biden wins the election, so many of these issues are going to disappear," he said. "And it's just not true -- no Democratic president is going to do everything we believe should be done."

Still, the Trump administration is the film's clear nemesis, with Ho at one point admitting that "if I'm not going to be a civil rights lawyer now, in this moment, then when?"

"I wish that we weren't still in the fight -- I wish that all of our press about this film was postscript, about a time that once was," said producer Kerry Washington ("Scandal.")

"But we're still deeply, deeply in the battle that is being revealed and exposed in this film."

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