Dir.: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres; Documentary with Lee Gelernt, Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, Joshua Block, Chase Strangio; USA 2020, 96 min.
Directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres (the former two already well-known for Weiner (2016), take a look inside battles faced by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via four cases that had particular impact on the road ahead in American politics.
There was a time when ACLU members were called “Fellow travellers”, a derogative term used by presidential candidate HW Bush in 1988 with great success against his democratic opponent Michael Dukakis. Today the ACLU is seen as a bastion against the Trump government. The ACLU has filed 147 (!) cases against the Trump administration, including the infamous Muslim travel ban.
According to Anthony D. Romero, executive director of ACLU, the core support of the organisation dates back to the Nixon era. ACLU is seen as “cool” today, donations have rocketed since Trump took over in 2017 from three million USD three million to nearly 120 million, whilst the membership has almost reached two million. Not that this matters much to Dale Ho, one of the lawyers we will follow on the day of the judgement: “We are just several floors in a building in New York, we cannot keep the government with all its resources at bay. ” He calls for more volunteers and donations. Meanwhile the ACLU task force is taking phone calls, many accusing them of being pedophiles. ACLU has also come under fire for supporting the members of “alt-right” to demonstrate in Charlottesville, where a counter-demonstrator Heather Heyes was killed by a car driven by ‘white supremacists’. Romero points out that already in 1977, the ACLU defended a Nazi rally in Skokie (Ill.). Back then the demonstrators were not armed, or defended by the President of the USA.
The finale is at judgement day in the four show cases. ACLU Deputy Director and team veteran Lee Gelernt, is – like the rest of the crew – exhausted. Gelernt has taken on the government in a family separation case, claiming the Trump administration had withheld constitutional rights from the plaintiffs, causing harm for both parents and children. Gelernt’s brief conveys the emotional impact of it all to the Supreme Court judges. Clearly breaking up undocumented immigrant families has caused untold grief going forward and there are emotive scenes of family reunion after the verdict is delivered. Joshua Block and Chase Strangio have been picked to challenge the Trump government on the Transgender Military ban.
The Trump administration subsequently banned any new recruitment of LGTB members into the army. “The guy never gives up” sighs Block. This labour of love is the perfect birthday present for the ACLU’s centenary. And hopefully, our five heroes, and the rest of the two-and-half floors in New York, will be less busy come January 2021. AS
ON DEMAND FROM 31 JULY 2020 COURTESY OF DOGWOOF FILMS