Review: ‘Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words,’ starring Ruth Bader Ginsburg

March 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the 2010 Women’s Conference in “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” (Photo courtesy of Sanders & Mock Productions and American Film Foundation)

“Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words”

Directed by Freida Lee Mock

Culture Representation: “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one Asian), mostly with law backgrounds, discussing the life and legacy of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died in 2020, at the age of 87.

Culture Clash: Ginsburg faced discrimination issues because of her gender and for being Jewish, and her politically liberal viewpoints conflicted with the viewpoints of many political conservatives.

Culture Audience: “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” will appeal to primarily to people who are admirers of Ginsberg who tend to be liberal or progressive when it comes to social justice issues.

A meme of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as The Notorious RBG in “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” (Photo by Juliana Jimenez Jarami)

Although not as intimate or insightful as the Oscar-nominated 2018 documentary “RBG,” the documentary “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” can still be considered a worthy overview of the life and legacy of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2020, at the age of 87. She became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1993 (the second woman to hold this title), and she never retired.

Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Freida Lee Mock, “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” is comprised mostly of archival footage of Ginsburg. There are also exclusive documentary interviews with some of her former colleagues, her “Notorious RBG” unauthorized biographers, and two people whose lives were directly affected by U.S. Supreme Court decisions made by Ginsburg. Fortunately, the documentary isn’t overstuffed with talking heads and doesn’t lose sight of Ginsburg’s words being the focus of the film.

The biggest difference between “RBG” (which was directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) and “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” is that the latter film does not have the participation of Ginsburg or her family. It’s a big void that “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” tries to fill by taking an in-depth look at the most well-known cases that Ginsburg was involved with in her long and illustrious career. Therefore, “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” has more audio clips of Ginsburg speaking in court during these cases, especially when voicing her deciding opinion. The documentary includes some simple animation to illustrate scenes from her life where video footage doesn’t exist.

“Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” was filmed when Ginsburg was still alive but battling her health problems. (It’s why everyone in the movie refers to her in the present tense.) But her legacy looms large and will be felt for generations to come. This documentary hits a lot of the same beats and uses a lot of the same archival footage that “RBG” used. Therefore, people who saw “RBG” probably won’t learn anything new about Ginsburg, except maybe seeing some archival footage that they might not have seen before.

For example, a clip that’s in “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” that isn’t in “RBG” is of Ginsburg appearing on a Columbia University Law School discussion panel for mothers and daughters who are lawyers. Ginsburg was on the panel with her daughter Jane Ginsburg, and it’s mentioned that they were the first mother and daughter to become professors at a U.S. law school. (Ruth and Jane both taught at Columbia University Law School, their alma mater.)

There’s also footage of Ruth going back to her childhood schools in her hometown of New York City (she was born and raised in the Brooklyn borough) to attend dedication events when they named a part of a building for her. At her former elementary school (Public School 238), the library is named after her. In the archival footage, Ruth says it was always her favorite room in the school when she was a student there. And at James Madison High School, they named the moot court after her.

And there are segments of her answering questions over the years from various U.S. students who came to visit at the U.S. Supreme Court building. In this archival footage, Ruth comments that meeting with students is one of her favorite things to do and she wishes that she could do it more often. There’s also expected archival footage of her U.S. Senate confirmation hearings in 1993, with Joe Biden as a prominent figure because he was a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary at the time. In archival footage, Ruth graciously gives credit to Sandra Day O’Connor for paving the way as the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice and for being so welcoming of Ruth.

The documentary doesn’t do too much in-depth coverage of Ginsburg’s life before she graduated from law school. It’s mainly because she didn’t publicly talk too much about her what her life was like before she went to college, and this documentary relies entirely on her public statements for any of her comments that are in the movie. Ruth’s beloved mother Celia (who encouraged Ruth to be a strong, independent woman) died when Ruth was 17, the day before Ruth graduated from high school. And Ruth’s older sister died when Ruth was a baby. In the documentary, Ruth’s unauthorized biographer Irin Carmon (co-author of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg”) mentions that these family tragedies probably affected Ruth’s resilience and ability to deal with other adversities that Ruth experienced later in her life.

Ruth’s courtship with husband Marty is described through archival clips that were also in “RBG.” They met while they both were undergraduate students at Cornell University. Ruth and Marty were married in 1954, the year that she graduated from Cornell, and the couple remained happily married until Marty’s death from cancer in 2010, at the age of 78.

Ruth and Marty attended Harvard University Law School, where she was one of the few women in her class. Marty graduated from Harvard, and Ruth later transferred to Columbia University Law School when Marty got a job in New York City. They had two children together: daughter Jane (an attorney/law professor) and son James (a music producer).

It’s also repeated how Ruth and Marty had opposite personalities: She was introverted and serious, while he was extroverted and a constant jokester. What isn’t mentioned in “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” but is detailed in “RBG” (and in the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg feature film “On the Basis of Sex”) is that Ruth and Marty experienced a major health crisis early in their marriage.

While they were both attending Harvard Law School and when Jane was a baby, Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1957. He was given a very slim chance to live. Fortunately, Marty recovered from the cancer, but the couple had the enormous challenge of dealing with his recovery while they were both enrolled in school and taking care of a baby. Ruth had to attend Marty’s classes as well as her own to take notes for him while he was in recovery.

The “Ruth” documentary repeats the well-known story of how Ruth faced gender and religious discrimination after graduating at the top of her law-school class in 1959, but no law firm would hire her at the time. In job interviews, she was sometimes told that the firm didn’t hire attorneys who were women, Jews and/or mothers. In an archival clip, Ruth said that she fit all three of those descriptions when she tried to get hired at a law firm, so she had “three strikes against her.”

Of course, blatantly telling people in a job interview that they won’t be hired because of things such as gender, religion, race, etc. is illegal now in the United States, but there was no law against it back then. Most people who watch this documentary might already know how Ruth was one of the driving forces in the legal profession that helped make these discriminatory practices illegal. “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” doesn’t dwell too much on Ruth’s time as a Columbia law professor and instead keeps most of the focus on her work as an attorney and judge.

Kathleen Peratis was the director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project from 1975 to 1979, so she and Ruth worked together during this period of time. Peratis comments in the documentary: “The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] was at the beginning of doing women’s rights work and was really at the beginning of the forefront of big-time gender discrimination legislation. And Ruth was at the head of it.”

The year 1976 was a milestone for Ruth. The documentary mentions three major cases in 1976 which helped define her career when she was an ACLU attorney. She won all of the cases. The Craig v. Boren lawsuit was an Oklahoma gender discrimination case that gave women the legal right to buy alcohol at age 18, while men had to wait until they were 21.

In archival commentary, Ruth said that a turning point in her career was winning the Reed vs. Reed case in 1976 in the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a case where Ruth represented Sally Reed, who had been prevented from being the administrator of her late son’s estate because she was a woman. In a 9-0 vote, it was the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court decided that gender discrimination was unconstitutional. Peratis comments, “Ruth spent the next 10 years just busting the doors open.”

M.E. Freeman, who would go on to become an attorney in New York, was a Columbia law student and ACLU volunteer when she worked with Ruth. Freeman remembers that in the Duren v. Missouri lawsuit in 1976 (a case arguing for women to have the same rights as men to serve on a jury), Ruth gave Freeman the privilege of sitting in during the U.S. Supreme Court proceedings as Ruth was making her arguments in the case. Freeman says it’s the type of mentor generosity that was rarely given to ACLU volunteers.

Freeman further comments on Ruth: “She was an amazing writer. Her expression was ‘If you can get the briefs to sing …’ And hers sang. They were powerful.” Goodwin Liu, who is a California Supreme Court associate justice, was a clerk for Ruth in 2000. He calls her an “independent thinker” and someone who was “an incredible mentor” to him, not just when he was in law school but also after he graduated and eventually became a judge. He says that even when Ruth was outvoted in U.S. Supreme Court cases, “She dissented with a purpose.”

One of the most well-known U.S. Supreme Court cases that had Ruth in the majority vote (7-1) was U.S. v. Virginia, which gave women the right to be allowed as students at the previously all-male Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1996. Jennifer Carroll Foy, who was one of the few women to graduate from VMI’s first co-ed class, comments in the documentary how this U.S. Supreme Court decision changed her life.

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for that experience,” Foy says of being in this groundbreaking co-ed VMI class. “My grandmother always told me: ‘Be the change you want to see.”

Foy adds, It’s very difficult to know where I would be right now without Justice Ginsburg and her opinion. She laid the foundation for all of us, especially me as a woman, to be able to attend the Virginia Military Institute. And I think it helped me reach the place I am today.”

Foy became a delegate for the 2nd district of the Virginia House of Delegates, a public defender and a 2021 candidate for governor of Virginia. Her personal life was also affected by her VMI experience, because VMI is where she met her husband Jeffrey Foy, and they are the parents of twin sons.

Also interviewed is Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. Ledbetter sued her employer Goodyear for being paid almost half of what male employees with equal or less experience were being paid for similar jobs in her department. In the documentary, Ledbetter says that she was a good, hardworking and loyal employee who was emotionally crushed when she found out about the pay discrepancy. She says she couldn’t afford to quit her job, so she found an attorney who would work on a contingency fee and she sued Goodyear to fight for her rights.

Although Ledbetter lost the case by a narrow 5-4 decision, Ruth was on the dissenting minority side and gave an eloquent courtroom speech explaining why. (Parts of that dissenting opinion are included in the documentary.) Ledbetter believes that this dissenting opinion helped pave the way for Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which Barack Obama made the first act that he signed after he became president of the U.S. in 2009.

The documentary also mentions another U.S. Supreme Court case that was a tough blow for Ruth. In 2013, Shelby v. Holder repealed the progress made in the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965. Ruth was in the minority dissenting opinion in the 5-4 vote.

Just like in “RBG,” Ruth’s unlikely friendship with politically conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016 at age 79, gets some screen time. (One of the few things they had in common was they both loved opera.) There’s archival footage of Ruth attending the Castleton Festival’s “Scalia/Ginsburg” parody musical and commenting to a reporter afterward about how the musical portrayed the real-life Scalia/Ginsburg relationship: “The song they sang ‘We Are Different, We Are One’ captures it. We each understand the way the other thinks.”

Also covered (as it was in “RBG”) is Ruth’s soaring popularity in her later years, including The Notorious RBG memes that resulted when she was satirically compared to rapper The Notorious B.I.G., another Brooklyn native. “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” co-author Shana Knizhnik, who founded The Notorious RBG blog, provides additional comments about Ruth becoming an unexpected icon in pop culture. And there’s archival footage of Ruth describing her workout routine and mentioning her personal trainer Bryant Johnson, although this recycled footage doesn’t have the same impact as the exclusive “RBG” footage of her actually doing the workouts.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of University of California at Berkeley Law School, says in the beginning of the “Ruth” documentary: “There’s remarkably little knowledge among college students about the [U.S] Supreme Court … I’ve seen opinion polls that more people could name the Seven Dwarfs than can name justices on the Supreme Court.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg is certainly an exception to the idea that U.S. Supreme Court Justices don’t have well-known names. And more importantly than being famous, as this “Ruth” documentary reaffirms, she’s left an important impact on U.S. law and inspired countless people, regardless of their personal politics.

Sanders & Mock Productions and American Film Foundation released “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on February 12, 2021. Starz premiered the movie on March 1, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is on March 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Mighty Ira,’ starring Ira Glasser

October 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ira Glasser in “Mighty Ira” (Photo courtesy of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

“Mighty Ira”

Directed by Nico Perrino, Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby

Culture Representation: The documentary “Mighty Ira” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans), who are attorneys and social justice activists, commenting on the life of former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Ira Glasser, including Glasser himself.

Culture Clash: Glasser has been a longtime advocate for ACLU principles, such as fighting for people’s rights to freedom of speech, even if it’s controversial hate speech.

Culture Audience: “Mighty Ira” will appeal primarily to people interested in ACLU history and social justice issues.

Ira Glasser and Ben Stern in “Mighty Ira” (Photo courtesy of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

The documentary film “Mighty Ira,” about former ACLU executive director Ira Glasser, just happened to be released in the same year as “The Fight” documentary, which is about the ACLU’s battles against the Donald Trump presidential administration’s attempts to have more conservative laws for personal freedoms. While “The Fight” is more about the ACLU’s specific responses to Trump and his presidential administration, “Mighty Ira” is more about ACLU’s legacy and how Glasser helped shaped that legacy during his tenure as ACLU executive director from 1978 to 2001.

Born in 1938, Glasser participates in this documentary, which has a conventional approach in many ways but makes unconventional choices in other ways. As with most biographical documentaries, there are the expected interviews with work associates and family members of the person who’s the subject of the documentary. But “Mighty Ira” doesn’t take the typical route of presenting several ACLU cases as highlights of Glasser’s career. Instead, the documentary focuses on the ACLU’s involvement in the landmark 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, also known as the Skokie Affair, which had the ACLU defending a neo-Nazi group’s right to have a rally in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois.

The position of the ACLU has always been that freedom of speech in the U.S. Constitution applies to everyone in the U.S., no matter how offensive or controversial that speech might be. “Mighty Ira” (directed by Nico Perrino, Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby) weaves vivid descriptions of the Skokie Affair in between Glasser talking about his life. And then, the documentary ties both topics together at the end, to give an overview of the 2017 tragic and deadly “Unite the Right” civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, and how there are similarities to the Skokie Affair and what happened in Charlottesville.

The movie begins with a personal touch, by showing Glasser’s longtime love for the team formerly known as the Brooklyn Dodgers. Glasser (who’s lived in New York City for most of his life) vividly remembers being a fan attending Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field in 1947, when Jackie Robinson, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made history as the first African American player in Major League Baseball.

In the documentary, Ira visits the site of what used to be Ebbets Field (which is where an apartment building now stands) and he has bittersweet memories of what Ebbets Field meant to him and how crushed he was when the Dodgers team moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960. Glasser says of Ebbets Field: “It was like a religious shrine. It was like if you had a beautiful, treasured Gothic cathedral, and they had torn it down and built a department store.”

While he visits the former site of Ebbets Field, which has a mural of Robinson, the documentary shows Glasser telling two curious African American girls, who are about 8 or 9 years old and passing by on the street, about Robinson and how important Robinson was in American history. Afterward, Glasser somewhat laments that these children didn’t know anything about Robinson. Its in contrast to a senior citizen African American man who greets Glasser on the same street and knew about Robinson.

As Glasser says in the movie, these childhood memories of watching the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field are parallel to Glasser first becoming aware of racial injustice and wanting to do something about it. Growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush, Glasser says he spent many years of his childhood not thinking about the fact that everyone around him was pretty much like his family: white, working-class and Jewish. He describes New York City at that time as diverse overall, but the neighborhoods were racially and ethnically segregated.

It wasn’t until Glasser became a fan of Robinson that he started to understand that Robinson and other people of color were treated as second-class citizens for not being white. When the Dodgers would travel outside of New York to states with Jim Crow segregation laws, Robinson could not get lodging or eat at the same places as his white teammates. And this type of racism outraged Glasser when he was a child.

Glasser entered the work force just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s was starting to blossom. In the early 1960s, Glasser started his career by teaching math at Queens College and Sarah Lawrence College. From 1964 to 1967, he was an associate editor of Current magazine, a New York-based reprint monthly publication of public affairs. And then a fateful meeting with Robert F. Kennedy in 1967 changed Glasser’s life.

According to Glasser, he wrote a letter to Kennedy (who was then a U.S. Senator for New York), asking to meet with him, even though Glasser knew that it was a long shot that Kennedy would reply. Glasser greatly admired Kennedy, whom Glasser describes in the documentary as “the leading white politician who became genuinely engaged in the civil rights movement” at the time. Not only did Glasser get a reply from Kennedy, but Glasser also got to meet with Kennedy in person. During the meeting, Glasser says that he told Kennedy that Kennedy should run for president of the United States.

Kennedy told Glasser that it was too early to decide if he would launch a presidential campaign, but he encouraged Glasser to take a job that Glasser had turned down: associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The job had been offered to Glasser by Aryeh Neier, who was NYCLU’s executive director from 1965 to 1970. Glasser thought he wasn’t qualified for the job because he didn’t have a law degree or a background in law.

However, Glasser says that Kennedy told Glasser that he could do a lot for the civil rights movement because of the passion that Glasser had for it. And so, a month after meeting with Kennedy, Glasser took the NYCLU associate director position. In 1970, Glasser was promoted to NYCLU executive director. And in 1978, he became executive director of the ACLU, until he retired in 2001.

Why does “Mighty Ira” put so much emphasis on the Skokie Affair as a flagship case for the ACLU, even though the case was decided in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, the year before Glasser became the head of the ACLU? Glasser explains in the documentary: “In retrospect, the Skokie case was a defining, pivotal moment for the ACLU. The reason why it was a defining and pivotal is that the reaction to the Skokie case threatened our existence.” Glasser also says that he when he became the executive director of the ACLU, he thought racial justice would be his top priority, but “my top priority turned out to be organizational survival.”

The essence of the Skokie Affair is that the National Socialist Party of America (a neo-Nazi group that was led at the time by Frank Collin) demanded to hold a rally in Skokie, whose city officials resisted and denied a permit. Why did this racist and anti-Semitic group choose Skokie? Because neo-Nazi Collin (who lived in the area) hated that Skokie had a large Jewish population and a growing number of African Americans living there too, according to Philippa Strum, author of “When the Nazis Came to Skokie.”

The National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) sued Skokie over the permit denial, and the case (in various forms) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the NSPA, on grounds of freedom of speech. David Goldberger, who was a lawyer for ACLU’s Illinois Division at the time, says in the documentary: “I became the lead attorney in the Skokie case, in part, because no one else would do it.”

It was a victory for the NSPA and the ACLU, but at what cost? Many people, especially those who are targets of neo-Nazis, vilified the ACLU for defending the neo-Nazis’ rights to freedom of speech. There is archival footage of several Jewish residents of Skokie saying that the NSPA rally would open up old wounds and remind people of Nazi Germany. Some of the Skokie residents said that they were ready to get in physical fights or shoot people to defend themselves if they had to do it.

One of the most outspoken anti-ACLU people during the Skokie Affair was Ben Stern, a Holocaust survivor and a Skokie resident at the time. Born in 1921, Stern was vehemently opposed to the NSPA rally taking place in Skokie, and he helped organized citizens’ groups that were on the side of Skokie officials who denied the permit. One of the best scenes in “Mighty Ira” is showing a reunion with Glasser and Stern, who put aside their differences years ago, but hadn’t seen each other in a long time until their reunion was filmed for this documentary.

After all the legal battles, the NSPA rally ended up not taking place in Skokie after all, but it happened in 1978 in Chicago’s Marquette Park, which is where the neo-Nazi group originally wanted to have the rally. The Skokie Affair controversy and the Marquette Park rally got so much publicity, the neo-Nazis ended up being far outnumbered and out-shouted by counter-protestors. The neo-Nazis slunk away in disgrace and defeat, having had their chance to hold this public-speech event, and it turned out to be a huge flop for them.

The documentary includes archival footage of Collin at the rally, repeatedly muttering to his followers how “pathetic” the rally was. Ironically, Collin’s father was Jewish, which is something that Collin tried to hide until the media found out. Collin later ended up being ousted by the NSPA and became a convicted child molester who spent time in prison for molesting boys.

“Mighty Ira” also includes a compelling segment on the unlikely friendship between Glasser and ultra-conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the PBS show “Firing Line” and the right-wing magazine National Review. The two men were opposites in almost every way, and often squared off in televised debates. “Firing Line” was a frequent forum for these debates. Buckley died in 2008, at the age of 82.

Glasser says in the documentary that these TV appearances “sort of elevated my visibility and my persona in a way that it had not been before.” One of the most famous debates on “Firing Line” was titled “Resolved: The ACLU Is Full of Baloney.” Glasser adds of his friendship with Buckley: “Part of the attraction we had for each other in that relationship was how different we were.”

Glasser remembers one of the highlights of their friendship was when, in 1994, he convinced Buckley (who was the epitome of an elite country-club type who would take limos everywhere) to go on a subway with him to Shea Stadium to watch a game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. The documentary includes archival TV footage of that trip. It was Buckley’s first time at a baseball game and the first time that Buckley had taken a subway in over 30 years. Ira’s sister Cora Glasser says in the documentary: “For Ira to bring [Buckley] down to a working person’s level was a victory.”

And when Ira had a heart attack in 1998, Buckley called Ira’s wife Trude about a week later to ask how Ira was doing. It was a compassionate gesture that many people would not think someone like Buckley would ever do for an ultra-liberal person. Ira admits in the documentary about Buckley making that concerned phone call: “I often wondered if I would’ve done that if he had had the heart attack.” Trude says of Buckley in the documentary that Buckley was “charming and solicitous and the perfect gentleman.”

It might surprise some viewers of this documentary that out of all of the friends that Glasser has had in his life, Buckley is the only who gets mentioned with any significance in “Mighty Ira.” It’s pointed out in the movie that what Ira learned from getting to know Buckley on a personal level is that friendships and other relationships can transcend political views. And to a larger degree, the documentary shows that ACLU has a similar purpose when it comes to defending the rights of all, even people who are political enemies or have political opinions that are opposite to the ACLU attorneys who defend these opposing opinions.

Speaking of attorneys and civil rights activists, there are several who are interviewed in this documentary. They include the aforementioned Goldberger; Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; fundraiser/author Roger Craver; Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Norman Siegel, NYCLU executive director from 1985 to 2000; Sheila Suess Kennedy, executive director of Indiana Civil Liberties Union from 1992 to 1998; Nadine Strossen, ACLU president from 1991 to 2008; former ACLU attorney Joel Gora; Carolyn Stern, who is Ben Stern’s daughter; and former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer.

In the documentary, Ira Glasser explains his position on the ACLU’s responsibility for the 2017 Unite to Right rally in Charlottesville that included a white supremacist murdering counter-protestor Heather Heyer by running her over with his car. The ACLU provided legal representation for the group to hold the rally in Charlottesville, as part of freedom-of-speech rights. However, Ira Glasser and former ACLU attorney Gora say that it’s not the responsibility of the ACLU to provide the proper police protection at these types of free-speech events.

The documentary includes archival news footage of several eyewitnesses to the Heyer murder who say that there were no police officers at the scene of the crime until it was too late. Although there can certainly be comparisons to the Skokie Affair and what happened in Charlottesville, it seems like the “Mighty Ira” filmmakers wanted to put the Charlottesville tragedy in the documentary to make the film more current, rather than to have the documentary be about Glasser reminiscing about a job that he hasn’t had since 2001.

As such, the documentary breezes right through some of Ira Glasser’s career highlights of when he was executive director of the ACLU, with a quick montage of graphics illustrating these highlights. They include the 1986 launch of the national ACLU Lesbian and Rights Project; the 1989 Doe v. University of Michigan case, with the ACLU winning a fight against the University of Michigan’s ban of hate speech; the 1997 case Reno v. ACLU, which ruled that the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech; and the 1999 Chicago vs. Morales case, which found that a vaguely worded loitering law unfairly targeted African Americans and Latino for arrests.

In “Mighty Ira,” Ira Glasser comes across as affable, intelligent, genuine, and proud of his working-class roots. He’s someone who’s very steeped in nostalgia, but also still engaged in today’s issues, many of which are the same as when he first became involved in civil rights. Glasser is aware of his ACLU legacy, but he’s also humble about it: “I’d certainly had my shot at it, and I was happy to pass the baton on to others.”

And what inspired the documentary’s title? That question is answered at the end of the movie, when lifelong baseball fan Glasser reads a very entertaining original poem that he received called “Mighty Ira at the Bat,” as a retirement gift. The poem praises Glasser and lists some of his best qualities and how he rose to many challenges that he had at the ACLU. And the poem was written by someone (who’s not identified by name in the movie) who originally recommended another candidate for the ACLU job that Glasser ended up getting. As a testament to how Glasser won over the respect of the person who originally opposed him, the poem ends with a note that says, “Everyone can be wrong once in a while.”

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released “Mighty Ira” via virtual cinema in New York City on October 9, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is October 23, 2020.

Review: ‘The Fight’ (2020), starring Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Brigitte Amiri, Josh Block and Chase Strangio

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Fight” (2020) 

Directed by Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres 

Culture Representation: This documentary about the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians, Latinos and black people), as the movie follows five ACLU attorneys in their battles for civil rights.

Culture Clash:  The movie (which began filming shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in 2017) focuses on four main issues that ACLU is fighting against with the Trump administration: immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, voting rights and LGBTQ rights.

Culture Audience: “The Fight” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal political views and/or support what the ACLU is doing.

Lee Gelernt in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The documentary “The Fight” takes a behind-the scenes look at some of the legal battles waged by the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in January 2017. Although the legal issues aren’t new, the documentary shows that Trump’s attempts as president to make sweeping changes to civil-rights laws brought increased urgency for the ACLU to fight back against those attempts.

“The Fight” co-directors Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres had unprecedented access to ACLU headquarters as well as high-ranking members of the ACLU team. The movie focuses on five attorneys with four different specialties: Lee Gelernt (immigrants’ rights); Brigitte Amiri (reproductive rights); Dale Ho (voting rights); and Josh Block and Chase Strangio (LGBTQ rights).

Each of these four issues is given a spotlight, as the featured ACLU attorneys prepare legal cases that represent these causes. Cameras are not allowed in the courtrooms for these cases, but what happens on the inside of these courtrooms is depicted in the film through audio recordings, illustrations and animation.

Gelernt is involved in battling Trump’s order to banning immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, as well as the controversy over immigrants seeking refugee status in the U.S. and being locked up and separated from their children. He is he deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the project’s Access to the Court’s Program. In the documentary (where almost all of the clients’ full names are not disclosed, for privacy reasons), Gelernt is shown helping an African immigrant woman identified only as “Mrs. L” in her case against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) because she was separated from her 7-year-old daughter, who was sent to live in Chicago without Mrs. L’s permission.

ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project deputy director Amiri fights back in cases involving abortion restrictions that the ACLU believes are unconstitutional policies against the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in all U.S. states in 1973. Amiri, with the help of ACLU reproductive rights attorney Meagan Burrows, is shown helping a 17-year-old Spanish-speaking pregnant immigrant in the case Garza v. Hargan.

The immigrant, who is identified only as “Jane Doe” in the documentary, says that her pregnancy was due to rape, and she wants an abortion, but is being prevented from getting an abortion by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which she says is treating her like a prisoner. In an interview with Spanish, she says that ORR officials won’t let her outside, they follow her into the bathroom, and they won’t let her visit a doctor. The outcome of her case is a race against time, because in the U.S. state where she lives, abortion is illegal when a pregnancy reaches at least 20 weeks, and Jane Doe’s interview in the documentary was when she was 15 weeks pregnant.

ORR director Scott Lloyd, an admitted right-wing conservative, is the ACLU’s chief nemesis in this case, since he’s the official who signed off on Jane Doe not being able to have an abortion. Lloyd is seen squirming and being evasive in a videotaped deposition when asked what his views are on abortion. But later in the documentary there is TV footage of him appearing on a conservative talk show openly discussing that he is a conservative Christian who thinks abortion should not be legal.

ACLU Voting Rights Project director Ho does a lot of work against voter suppression. But the main battle that he has in the documentary is the case Department of Commerce v. New York, which is the ACLU’s fight to prevent any questions from being added to the 2020 U.S. Census that asks if anyone in a U.S. household is a U.S. citizen. The ACLU and other civil-rights groups have a legal argument that this question about U.S. citizenship is unconstitutional for a U.S. census, because the question is designed to deter people from filling out a census form if they are not U.S. citizens or have people in their households who aren’t U.S. citizens, thereby making them underrepresented in the census.

Block (an openly gay cisgender male) and Strangio (an openly transgender male) work as a team. Block is a senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects. Strangio (who is a parent to a daughter, who’s shown in the documentary) is deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. Block and Strangio are seen working on the case Stone v. Trump, in reaction to Trump wanting to ban transgender people from the U.S. military. In this case, the ACLU is representing transgender male plaintiff Brock Stone, a U.S. Navy petty officer first class who has been in the Navy since 2006.

The directing style of the documentary is cinéma vérité, with each of the narrative jumping back and forth between each case. There is ample use of a split-screen format (with three or four screens at once) to show what might be happening on multiple cases. However, all of this doesn’t get confusing because the cases and the lawyers are very distinct from each other, and everything is smoothly edited to together in a cohesive storytelling style.

And fortunately, the documentary isn’t cluttered with a lot of interviews with people who aren’t involved in the cases, because those outside people would be a distraction and could possibly compromise some of the confidentiality of any pending cases at the time. Other ACLU employees who are briefly featured in the documentary include ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and ACLU deputy director of communications Stacy Sullivan.

On the flip side, the documentary doesn’t shut out opposing views of the ACLU. There is some archival footage of ACLU opponents getting into debates with ACLU attorneys on TV talk shows (usually on cable news channels), as well as news footage of Trump and his supporters at Trump rallies and speeches. And the documentary briefly includes other examples of the ACLU representing people or groups that promote hate speech and other controversial issues that the ACLU says that people have a right to express under freedom of speech.

There’s also a segment in “The Fight” where all of the featured attorneys read aloud or show many of the hate messages that they get (on social media, by mail or by phone), because of the work that they do for the ACLU. Many of the haters identify themselves as Trump supporters, and the ACLU lawyers who aren’t straight white men are often called racist, sexist or homophobic slurs.

Gelernt says of the hateful criticism that often includes death threats or other threats to his safety: “If you don’t look at the negative stuff, you’re sort of in your own bubble.” Ho comments on being the target of ACLU haters: “I don’t want to run from this,” as he says as he takes a hate-filled postcard that he got in the mail and tacks the postcard on his office wall.

The documentary also includes an unflinching look at how there can be conflicts within the ACLU. The ACLU won a lawsuit for a Unite the Right protest (consisting of white supremacists) to be held on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and August 12, 2017. That rally led to tragedy, when a Unite the Right supporter plowed his car through counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer.

Although some people blamed the ACLU for this tragedy, others did not. And the documentary shows that people in the ACLU also had different opinions on how the ACLU’s legal defense for the Unite the Right protest to take place ended up playing a role in this tragedy. The documentary does not show anyone at the ACLU getting into heated debates about this protest, but the film does offer two different points of view from high-ranking ACLU officials.

ACLU director David Cole (a white man) stands firm in his belief that the ACLU did the right thing in helping make the Unite the Right protest happen: “We defend civil liberties for all,” he says in the documentary. Meanwhile, ACLU deputy legal director Jeffrey Robinson (an African American man) says that privately, he had a problem with the ACLU being involved in making the Unite to Right rally happen, and he did not support ACLU’s decision to represent the Unite the Right people in their legal case to make the protest happen. Robinson comments in what was obviously a prepared statement: “The ACLU was not responsible for Heather Heyer’s death, but we were not a random organization just watching what happened.”

The documentary does a good job of making the featured attorneys look very human. The attorneys are all shown with family members (Gelernt, Amiri and Ho are married with children) and with getting emotional during the many ups and downs in their cases. They all show empathy for their clients. And they all talk about the toll that their stressful work takes on their personal lives and emotional health. However, none of them wants to quit because they say that the work is too important to them.

They attorneys aren’t afraid to show their insecurities: Block wants Strangio to take the lead on the Stone v. Trump case, because Strangio is transgender, but Strangio declines to do so because he says that he’s still not comfortable standing up in court and making arguments. Ho is the lawyer who tends get gets tongue-tied and flustered the most. Gelernt talks about feeling that if he loses a case, he will let down not just his client but also American society. (All ACLU attorneys probably feel this way too.)

But not everything is dead-serious in the film. There are touches of humor, such Gelernt (the oldest lawyer in the documentary’s featured five) getting flustered when he doesn’t know how to plug a phone charger into a computer. Each of the attorneys give a tour of the ACLU offices in their own unique style, and during his tour Gelernt admits that he doesn’t even know how to use the copy machine.

Meanwhile, Block is shown going from pleased to frustrated when he uses a dictation program on his computer. Things starts out fine but then the computer program’s translation abilities quickly goes awry, in one of the funnier scenes in the film. Ho is shown in multiple scenes practicing his courtroom arguments in front of a mirror, sometimes with amusing results.

Of the legal cases featured in “The Fight,” most of the outcomes are already known. However, just because there have been rulings on these cases (some of which were appealed), that doesn’t dilute a lot of gripping suspense and emotionally stirring moments in the documentary, since it shows for the first time many of the behind-the-scenes, real-time reactions that the ACLU people had to major steps in the cases.

The ACLU is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, so “The Fight” is a fitting tribute to the legacy and longevity of the ACLU. But as Ho says in the documentary, the ACLU should not be counted on as the only way to defend liberties for everyone, when there are forces trying to take away or restrict those freedoms. “It’s not going to be lawyers in courts,” he comments on who will be making the most progress. “It’s going to be people [in the general public] turning the ship around.”

“The Fight” probably won’t change a lot of people’s political opinions. Trump’s views on issues such as immigration and abortion were made very clear during his presidential campaign, so people who voted for him in 2016 expected him to act on those views. However, for anyone interested in what politically liberal attorneys at the ACLU are doing behind the scenes to push back against many of the changes that Trump and politically conservative lawmakers want for the United States, “The Fight” offers an insightful peek into this process.

Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios released “The Fight” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 31, 2020.

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