Not long after he took office in 2017, Donald Trump issued a travel ban targeting seven predominately Muslim countries. The order drew sharp criticism as well as immediate chaos when travelers from the targeted countries were detained across several airports.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against Trump and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and a federal judge eventually granted a stay on deportations for people with valid U.S. visas who were detained on entry to the United States.
It was a small victory in the face of the political and ideological weight of the Trump administration, but it was a win nonetheless.
It was also the inspiration filmmaker Elyse Steinberg needed for her next documentary.
Steinberg was filming in the crowd that gathered at the steps of the Brooklyn Supreme Court when ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt emerged from the courthouse and told the crowd and reporters the judge’s decision.
“I could see the expression on his face—it was shock and joy and exhaustion, exhilaration,” Steinberg says. “It felt like this was a defining moment in our history. A great battle was beginning with the ACLU at the forefront fighting against the Trump administration.”
Steinberg saw it as a David-and-Goliath story and brought the idea to her collaborators Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres.
“I came back to our office where we have this whiteboard and I wrote, ‘The Fight,'” Steinberg recalls. “I said, ‘That’s our movie, guys. This is what we’re going to do.'”
The Fight follows several ACLU attorneys as they go toe-to-toe in court against several key issues stoked by the Trump administration, including immigration rights, transgender men and women serving in the military, voter suppression, and reproductive rights. It’s an unprecedented look inside the ACLU, not to mention a humanizing portrait of the lawyers moving the needle for civil liberties for all.
But it was a fight to get The Fight off the ground.
“Our vision was getting in bed with the ACLU and doing a vérité doc,” Steinberg says. “Now in terms of access, it wasn’t easy.”
Through a mutual contact, Steinberg got in touch with Gelernt, who expressed interest in the doc. Steinberg then met with the powers that be at the ACLU.
“And they said, ‘We appreciate your vision, but there’s no way you’re making this documentary. That’s not happening. I’m sorry,'” Steinberg says. “Josh, Eli, and I turned to ourselves and said, ‘Okay, I think we can make this work!'”
Steinberg began filming Gelernt anyway. While Steinberg began developing trust with Gelernt and his colleagues, the Trump administration continued to issue more policies that flew in the face of the Constitution and human rights.
Soon enough, the ACLU began to warm to the idea of doing a documentary.
“They said, ‘This is like a moment in the ’60s and the battle for Civil Rights. This is that moment in our history. We have to document it,'” Steinberg says.
In addition to spotlighting some of the key cases the ACLU has brought against the Trump administration, Steinberg says it was also crucial to put faces to the attorneys doing the work.
“I had this question going in: Who is the ACLU? Who are these people? What do they look like?” Steinberg says. “We wanted to humanize them. It’s not just the image of the lawyer going up the Supreme Court steps and perfectly giving an oral argument. They’re messing up. They’re fumbling. Their phone chargers aren’t working. We wanted to show the human moments that are part of this. That’s what we live for as filmmakers. And I think that’s what we all relate to as people.”
In that process of capturing them in and out of the office and courtrooms, Steinberg saw just how ingrained their work is into their personal lives.
“What I think about is just how personal this fight is for them. They do not stop thinking about their clients. They carry their hearts on their sleeves with their clients,” Steinberg says. “You’re not going to work there unless you have that kind of mission. Everything these guys are doing, they’re doing for their clients. And that is one of the reasons they did this film. It’s about highlighting the work for their clients.”