Elyse Steinberg, co-director of “The Fight,” focuses her lens on ACLU’s heroic humanity

Following the Women’s March in January 2017, I was witnessing a power in the collective, a power I hadn’t seen before in my lifetime. Though I didn’t have a name for this power, I knew that it represented some “fight”, some unrest with our country’s political shift. It was 2017, shortly after the presidential election, and I was still feeling the pains of Hillary’s loss. That was when I heard about the “Muslim Ban”, Trump’s first of many tyrannical agendas.

The “Muslim Ban” proved that there was not just a “fight” in the collective, but in our legal system. Floods of attorneys were going to airports to fight for those people who have family members trying to come to the US, but were being restricted because of how they looked, or being accused that they were not a US citizen. These attorneys were saving the day, and a lot of them came from the ACLU. Over the years, I had heard of the ACLU, but had never seen them step up the way they did during that time, at that moment. It was at that moment I realized that I didn’t need to be afraid, I could believe in something, not just in the people on the ground, but a legal system that could make a difference. This organization was empowering people like me to take action.

That is why “The Fight” struck such a chord with me, as it follows four cases that touch on civil rights issues (immigration, voting rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights) and profiles the ACLU lawyers that fight these cases. Elyse Steinberg, co-director of the film with Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, spoke with me about how she came to this film. Fighting for justice runs in Elyse’s family, starting with her grandmother, who fled from Nazi Germany, and continued with her mother, an immigration lawyer. There’s a quote that has stayed with Elyse all of her life that was passed down from her grandmother, who grew up “knowing that the country could turn at any point against its own people.” We then went on to discuss why it’s so important for people to watch this film, so they can be empowered to fight the good fight, and vote!

Today “The Fight” is streaming on all major platforms and in select theaters. Make sure this is your must-watch this weekend.

Elyse Steinberg, co-director of THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did your mother’s story, as an immigration lawyer, inspire you to make “The Fight”, and what was the road that took you to this project?

ELYSE STEINBERG: My mother was a litigator who fought for immigrant rights. She had been inspired to do that work from my grandmother’s story of escaping Nazi Germany. I grew up with this sense that at any moment your country can turn against you, and that you needed to fight for injustices, and fight to preserve democracy.

So that was a part of my upbringing. I always was interested in stories about justice. Before “Weiner” [Elyse’s 2016 documentary], I had worked on a couple pieces for PBS on juvenile justice [“Need to Know” series], and I did a short documentary on Bryan Stevenson, along with a few other pieces. And they were all focused on the legal fight.

So I feel this is something I’ve been fascinated by. It’s just spoken to me on a deep, emotional level. In Brooklyn at the Cadman Plaza court, when I saw Lee [Gelernt], and thousands protesting the immigration ban, it was this huge moment that I felt everyone was responding to. I felt like, oh yeah, this is what I want to do. I know Dale [Ho] says in the film, “If I’m not going to be a Civil Rights lawyer in this moment, then when?” So I was like, ‘if I’m not going to be a documentary filmmaker in this moment, then when?’ This is the moment to keep your eye on the prize. This is a huge epic moment for our country, and our struggle for civil liberties. I felt like pointing my cameras at the ACLU at this moment was where we needed to be. 

Joshua Block (senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects) and Chase Strangio (deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and a nationally recognized expert on trans rights) in THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

MARTIN: What was the reason for formatting the documentary on abortion rights, immigration, voting rights, and LGBTQ, and the specific cases that you followed?

STEINBERG: Those were the biggest cases that the ACLU had when we were there for the past three years. Those were some of those defining civil rights struggles that our country faced. Abortion rights, immigration, LGBTQ+, and voting rights. We came to the ACLU and we had our cameras. We didn’t know what case would happen, or who would be the lawyer arguing the cases. And while we were there, we found them. I remember being at the ACLU filming with Lee and then my phone rang. It said that Trump tweeted that he was going to kick transgender people out of the military. 

So I was asking the ACLU what’s happening? This is an ACLU type of case, are you doing it? And they said, “yes, Josh and Chase are preparing.” I went over to Josh and Chase and asked, “Can I film with you?”

So that was just being on the ground as it happened. It was like being in a hospital, and when the emergency patient comes in, you just follow the doctor. Then it was just finding out more about the lawyers, like who are these people? We wanted to make sure we were following the right film subjects that have these qualities that make good documentary subjects. Like being very authentic, real and open. And having that kind of visceral documentary crackle that you look for in your subjects.

Lee Gelernt (deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the project’s Access to the Court’s Program_ in THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

MARTIN: What I love that you did with your subjects is that you elevated them in a way that’s human. You showed their strengths, but also the weaknesses that make them real people and relatable. Also, humor was a great tool to illustrate relatability. Can you talk about that?

STEINBERG: What you said is exactly what we wanted to do, you captured it perfectly. As vérité filmmaker, we believe in showing the human side and showing stuff that’s funny. I think we looked for that in “Weiner” too. It’s really important that you have both pathos and humor. That is something we want to do in all of our work. The opportunity is to showcase humor. I think humor is important. I don’t feel it’s used enough in documentaries. When it is, it’s a window into a way that we can all relate. You need both, but it’s an important contrast.

Lee is a master in the courtroom. He can devise strategy in just the right way to make his arguments. But then he’s struggling with his phone charger,and forgetting his briefcase. You get this other side that is so relatable. I think that other side, just those small moments of struggle, are equally important in showing the way history has manifest. It’s not only the big grand moments, it’s also these small moments, like Chase trying to do his work with his kid interrupting. That is a part of the struggle. I know going in that we really wanted to show the nitty gritty, the little things, that come to define these big epic cases.

Brigitte Amiri (deputy director at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project) in a scene in THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

MARTIN: I appreciate you bringing up Charlottesville. Was that difficult to bring that into the documentary when you were focusing more on the positives of the ACLU fighting Trump’s agenda?

STEINBERG: No, it was so important to us that we showed the events of Charlottesville in the film. While we were there, as you see in the film, it happens when we’re filming. We’re following these lawyers and then this very painful gut punch moment for everybody, the ACLU, and for us. What we saw was a debate unfold. There were a lot of different opinions about the ACLU’s rule, and I think we just wanted to show that discussion. It’s a testament to ACLU that they were absolutely willing to let us document that moment. 

Dale Ho (director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project) still from The Fight by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Sabrina Lantos.

MARTIN: What takeaways do you hope the film will have for people in terms of the November election and in their personal lives?

STEINBERG: We open the film with protesters taking to the airport and to the street and to the courthouses. And then we end the film with one of the lines from Dale saying, “Change isn’t going to happen just with lawyers and courts, it’s got to be people who turn this ship around.”

And that is one of the messages I think we want to get across is that it’s up to us, it’s up to people, everyday people, to make change and to do extraordinary things. The stakes of this election just couldn’t be higher. Our hope is that people see our movie, and they feel inspired and galvanized to make a difference, to vote, and to be a part of the process of what’s happening.

And we’re seeing that right now. When we premiered at Sundance, we didn’t have the event of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter movement. We didn’t have people in the street. And we’re having that now. I think it’s breathtaking to see, it’s inspiring, and we hope our film is encouraging everyone to go out there and do something. 

Sundance: “The Fight” (L-R) Kerry Washington (producer), Elyse Steinberg (co-director), Joshua Kriegman (co-director), Brigitte Amiri (deputy director at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project), Eli Despres (co-director)

MARTIN: I’m curious about how Kerry Washington got involved with the film. She’s an actor I really admire, and love the stances she takes on civil rights.

STEINBERG: I was there on the steps of the Brooklyn courthouse during the protests. I was there when Lee came out. She was also watching that moment on her TV when Lee came out and spoke to the press. After seeing that, she decided she wanted to make a documentary. She wanted to know who was a documentarian that was there at the event. She called her agent, and then she found out that the “Weiner” directors were covering the event in a documentary. So she called and said “I want to team up with you.” And of course we said yes. Let me tell you, if Kerry Washington calls and says she’s interested in producing or working with you, you say yes. It’s a no brainer. You have hit the jackpot. 

It wasn’t like we were sitting around saying, “Let’s get a high-profile celebrity executive producer onboard”. That’s not what happened. And I think it was a joint calling. We had the same thought. We came together in that call to action to make this film. We were together in that, and it was amazing to have that kind of producer. She’s just brilliant, creative and an amazing person. I feel so grateful for her partnership and everything she has given to this film. 

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