"We may have battles that break our hearts, but I know the enemies of equality will not win this war," attorney Benjamin Crump says in a moment of profundity featured in Civil: Ben Crump, the Netflix documentary on Crump's work. "It will be the moral people who will win this war."
It's a message of continued hope from the civil rights attorney and so-called "African American Family Emergency Plan," whose decades-long work has had a singular focus: Raise the value of Black life in America. Literally. Crump's crusade against anti-Black racism is waged in civil lawsuits, using financial restitution as a form of accountability. As Crump himself explains, “I want to make it financially unsustainable for them to continue to kill Black people unjustly.”
Civil covers a year in Crump's life and caseload, including the civil cases for George Floyd, Andre Hill and Breonna Taylor. "That the film is named Civil was very intentional," filmmaker Nadia Hallgren tells A.frame. "Not only to define the work that Ben does as a lawyer who handles civil cases — which we wanted to distinguish from criminal law and prosecution — but also connect it to our history as America and the Civil War and slavery, as well as civil behavior, and why is it that this country is behaving in a way that is not so?"
"There are a lot of ties to the treatment of Black people in America historically and this moment that Ben is in the center of," Hallgren says.
Civil's release on Juneteenth — the holiday commemorating the true ending of slavery in the United States — was equally deliberate. "It meant so much to myself, as well as Ben, for the film to premiere worldwide on Juneteenth, as symbolic of how far we've come and how far we need to go," Hallgren says. (Civil will first open this year's American Black Film Festival, the first documentary to do so.)
A.frame: You'd just come off of making Becoming with former First Lady Michelle Obama. How did you decide you wanted to focus on Ben Crump as the subject of your next documentary?
Hallgren: We were actually locking sound [on Becoming] when the whole world shut down and we all went into quarantine. So when Becoming released on May 6th of 2020, we were all home. I was home, like most people, watching TV and really immersed in what was happening in America and in the world around the murder of George Floyd. And as a Black filmmaker, my first thought was, "I need to be doing something. I need to be documenting this moment in history."
But things were complicated. How do you do that? Do you just go out in the world and start filming? What's the story? I was watching Ben Crump on the news and, unexpectedly, I got a phone call from Kenya Barris, and he proceeded to tell me that he knew Ben Crump and that they had been working on something. But that, in this moment, it seemed as if a documentary could be made following him during this time. He asked if I was interested in being the person to make that film. It was like a dream come true, in terms of what I was hoping to do as a filmmaker in that moment and being connected with someone like Ben. So, we immediately set up a meeting. In that moment, I knew that it was the film that I had to start making.
What were those conversations you had with Mr. Crump as you set out to make this documentary? Did you have a general sense or scope of what you were hoping to accomplish with him throughout filming?
Something that was really interesting was, coming off of Becoming, where Mrs. Obama has a very planned out schedule because of Secret Service and the way she moves through the world. There's nothing that happens that is unplanned. This was the complete opposite. With Ben, sometimes I would get a text at midnight and it would be a screen grab of a flight or a news story. And it was basically Ben telling me, "This is where I'm going to be tomorrow. Are you in?" In that moment, I was calling my producer, calling the [Associate Producer], being like, "Can we get there?" Oftentimes, I'd be on a plane with my very small team by morning, and we'd meet Ben at the airport and just go, not knowing when we were coming home or where the next place was that it would take us.
You didn't shoot any to-camera interviews or talking heads for this, instead letting it unfold in vérité. What made that the best approach for Civil?
My background is in documentary cinematography — I came up as a cinematographer — and the craft that I've pursued most of my professional life has been verité cinematography. For me, that was the way to begin the film. At the time we linked up with Ben, he was on the move. There was a lot happening. And it really was get up and go — wherever Ben was, we were. And that time was the height of COVID too; so, we were a very small film team. Many days, it was one or two people out filming. So, leaning into my cinematography background, I had a camera in my house, some lav [mics], and I would jump on a plane. We just went with it and didn't feel like we needed to do any sit-down interviews with Ben or even necessarily have these two camera setups. It worked for the story and also for the circumstances.
The movie begins with Mr. Crump being hired onto the George Floyd case, and I feel like your use of the footage of his murder was quite deliberate and, I felt, quite thoughtful. How did you decide what to show and what not to as most effective for the story you were telling?
I knew immediately that I didn't want to show the footage of the horrific murder of George Floyd. Insanely, that video has been viewed, I believe, over a billion times around the world. It's something people have seen and they know what it is. And we didn't have to include it in the film and further traumatize people, perpetuate the violence, or anything like that. Of course, in order to connect the story with what happened, there's a moment where we do see George Floyd alive at the beginning of that police encounter — and that's what we chose to use in the film to connect the audience to what actually happened.
We did the same with some of the other cases that maybe people didn't know as well, like Andre Hill. Again, to not further show more violence in that way. But I also think that, sadly, as Americans especially, we know what happens in between and our minds can kind of fill in the blanks. What we were there for that we actually filmed were many of these first encounters that Ben had with families after these tragedies happened, and telling the story of what that was like.
What was it like for you to be in the room, as these families are still very much reeling and grappling and coming to terms with the tragedy and finding maybe a sliver of hope through Mr. Crump's involvement?
Those rooms were incredibly emotional. They were tense. Families were rightfully very angry. And it was so sad. What I think I connected with in those moments was... you learn about this individual that oftentimes we only hear about in a quick news story, because there's so many of them. But you hear all these details about someone's life. Like, the suit that Andre Hill would wear at his funeral was the one that he walked his sister down the aisle in, and just how much he meant to his daughter, of course, and that he and his best friend played chess together every day.
As a filmmaker, I really just allowed myself to go with that wave of emotion. Oftentimes, there'd be tears rolling down my eyes, falling into the viewfinder while I'm trying to get focus. And also thinking about everything that's happening in the room, where I need to be and how I cover that scene, knowing that experience was something that I wanted to bring to a larger audience, to really connect with these stories that are deeper than what we oftentimes see on the news.
When you look back, what is something you learned from your time with Mr. Crump?
I didn't know what to expect going out with Attorney Crump. And from day one, I knew that he was incredibly special, that he had a warmth and a perspective that I had never experienced before, and an edge in his approach to the work that he does. I was really moved by the way that he can go into a room — like with the family of Andre Hill, where the worst thing that could possibly happen to a family has just happened — and he can do all the work that he needs to do as a lawyer, but also as a friend, as a human being. By the end of that conversation, people are laughing and finding joy in reminiscing about Andre Hill and his life. Being able to manage all those things and also people's grief was something I knew that I wanted to learn from. I wanted to understand how to capture that in the film. I knew that could make me a better person.
By John Boone