An ambitious documentary with a real emotional punch, The Fight chronicles four high-profile legal cases recently pursued by the ACLU, the tenacious nonprofit dedicated to defending civil liberties in the United States. Each case directly or indirectly targets the federal government, and each is a suspenseful legal thriller in its own right. This movie is designed to get your blood up. 

And so it does. The cases under scrutiny are among more than 140 lawsuits the ACLU has filed against the Trump administration since 2017. Veteran immigration lawyer Lee Gelernt leads the most compelling storyline, which deals with brutal family-separation policies at the border. The other lawsuits involve abortion access, the military’s ban on transgender people, and the immigration question on the 2020 census. 

Amid the legal drama, we get to know several overtaxed ACLU lawyers who are fighting on the front lines. Gelernt works through his young son’s Saturday birthday so that other parents will be able to reunite with their children. We also spend some time with ACLU clients. We meet a rape victim denied an abortion by immigration officials, a dedicated Navy officer who is about to lose his job, and a desperate mom separated from her child. 

The directing team employs the traditional blend of interview segments and archival material, plus some stylish animation sequences. The best moments, however, are the handheld vérité scenes in which plans go haywire, triumphs are celebrated, and decisions are handed down. 

The film folds in moments of gentle humor, too, including a running gag about recalcitrant ergonomic desks at ACLU headquarters.  

This movie is very engaging and more than a little scary. It makes a persuasive case that the U.S. is a lot closer than you might think to a Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia. The ACLU provides a thin membrane of protection against a reactionary cancer spreading through our government and society.  

“We’re not going to be able to stop this thing ourselves,” says ACLU lawyer Dale Ho in the closing scenes. “We’re two and a half floors in a New York building against the power of the federal government and a massive political movement. It’s not going to be lawyers in courts, it’s going to be people who turn this ship around.”

The Fight is available Friday through various online services, or you can support your local theater by purchasing tickets via the Carolina Theatre website at

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated ACLU lawyer Dale Ho’s name as David Ho. 

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