On the front line of US racial justice
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, producer Kenya Barris, and director Nadia Hallgren discuss their new Netflix documentary, ‘Civil’, and the fight to impose real change for future generations
Wednesday 22 June 2022 By Lola Adesioye
Civil rights attorney, Ben Crump, has devoted his life to being a voice for the voiceless: prosecuting wrongdoers who have committed some of the most heinous civil rights violations in recent history; standing up for families of murdered innocent Black people including Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; representing Black farmers who were diagnosed with cancer while working for Monsanto, and fighting on behalf of those impacted by racism within the banking system.
It is not sexy work. In fact, as we see in Civil, the gripping Netflix documentary produced by Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and directed by Nadia Hallgren (Becoming), it’s gruelling and emotionally draining. But there’s no doubt that Crump – an eternal optimist who is inspired by his hero Thurgood Marshall and is not afraid to get his hands dirty, despite death threats and much criticism from the right – is the man for the job.
Crump’s commitment to the pursuit of justice is made plain as Hallgren masterfully takes the viewer on a deep dive into the attorney’s daily life. We see him taking harrowing calls (his firm receives up to 500 a day), dealing with the ins and outs of the system, consoling the families and friends of victims of brutality, attending funerals, and speaking to (a sometimes hostile and unsympathetic) press. In fact, the film opens with a chilling phone call from a lady named Tera Brown, who asks Crump for help: her cousin George Floyd has just been killed.
Weaved among all of that are endearing moments that show Ben Crump the man: touching moments with his wife and 10-year-old daughter, conversations with his mother, and his love for his grandmother, who despite only having an eighth grade education, was instrumental in empowering the Tallahassee, FL-born attorney to do what he calls ‘leaning on the Black imagination’.
‘[With Civil], we are trying to affect the hearts and minds of future generations of jurors who are going to sit in judgement of the next Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin or any young Black person,’ explains Crump, as I speak to him, Barris and Hallgren about the film. ‘This isn’t just a documentary for us today in the present, but this really is a documentary for our children yet unborn… We did this for our children not to end up a hashtag.’
The powerhouse trio is clear about the importance of shifting the public perception around Black life through the visual media. Although Barris and Crump had originally conceived of making a scripted series based on Crump’s work, the direction changed after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and filming for Civil as a feature-length documentary began.
‘Film and television have such a way of being able to speak to the subconscious mind of the viewer… For decades in America, Black people would be killed and nothing would happen, I don’t care how much evidence you had,’ Crump tells me. ‘After George Floyd, a record number of prosecutors are now charging police officers for shooting little Black boys in the back. And that, I believe, is all because we’re winning in the court of public opinion.’ It was Crump who was able to get the Minneapolis police to cough up $27m – the largest pre-trial settlement in American history – for Floyd’s wrongful death.
Although Crump laughingly says being followed by a film crew was ‘invasive’, the respect and trust between him and Hallgren shines throughout Civil, allowing the viewer a high-level insight into what it’s really like as a civil rights attorney on the front line. ‘Nadia and her crew were really great – they got to know my family and everybody. I think that’s why we let our guards down and tried as best we could to give her complete access.’
Hallgren explains it was important that the film provided moments that ‘reminds [the viewer] that, even among all this tragedy, Ben is a human being. And even for his own sanity, he needs moments to smile and to laugh and to be himself, so that he can continue on and be there for the next family.’
The trio believes that Civil should serve as a call to action. Crump wants people to ‘get in the arena and do something’, while Barris wants everyone to become uncomfortable to engage beyond safe spaces in order to ‘change things’. As he puts it, ‘I think people need to be willing to hear different things. The least safe space in the world is a ‘safe space’… People getting in echo chambers with those who feel the same exact same way as them doesn’t allow for change.’
He describes Civil as ‘a documentary that’s expertly executed, gives you different points of view, and allows you to form an opinion that’s based off context, not just blind rhetoric’ – alluding to those who are critical of Crump and his racial justice work.
Despite heightened awareness that has arisen since filming of Civil began in 2020, Hallgren shared that she’d been dismayed by the fact that after George Floyd’s death, there were another 100 shootings of Black men by police within the next six months.
‘I see that we’re going to continue to have struggles,’ Crump tells me as we talk about America’s future. ‘But I don’t see that necessarily as a bad thing, because I try to be a student of history, and the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said it perfectly that “without struggle there can be no progress”. People of moral character have to struggle too if we’re going to change stuff. But I think we’re preparing the next generation for the struggle. We’re preparing our children to be more intelligent than the people who seek to oppress them.’
Finally, ever optimistically, Crump draws on precedent, as lawyers tend to do. ‘The enemies of equality will not win. Precedent is on our side: we overcame slavery, we overcame the middle passage… There’s precedent that whatever they throw at us marginalised people of colour, we will overcome it. That’s what keeps me encouraged.’