A simple list of Ben Crump’s clients tells us how important his work as a civil rights attorney is: Between 2020-2021 alone, he represented the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright.
“Civil” began as a collaboration between Crump and Kenya Barris (“black-ish”), who considered working on a scripted series together. But as Crump puts it, Barris felt people would want to see “this real life superhero,” so they asked director Nadia Hallgren (“Becoming”) to make a documentary about Crump himself.
The result leaves us with the feeling that a combination of approaches might have worked best: a non-scripted series could have given Hallgren valuable opportunities to broaden the story, while still introducing viewers to her primary subject.
As a straightforward portrait, “Civil” can feel a bit too much like a personal or even public relations project. We follow Crump as he attends church, debates the merits of getting a dog with his adorable daughter and talks respectfully to his loving mother. He meets distraught clients who have lost loved ones to racially-motivated violence, leads mock-trial exercises and holds press conferences when his team at Ben Crump Law wins a civil case. As we learn, he is exceptionally good at his job; he has won record-millions, multiple times.
But eventually it becomes hard to escape the feeling that Hallgren’s sightline is too narrow. Her camera shoots him on the fly, and despite — or perhaps because of — intermittent footage of brutality, funerals and marches, the vérité approach begins to feel less immersive than exalting.
She absolutely makes the case that Crump does crucial work. But because he is so entrenched in the center of the narrative, the terminally wrenching need for that work winds up inadvertently taking second place. Several of his clients get a few minutes onscreen, but each of them deserves so much more. The young mother who cannot feed her children because a teller has punished her for, as Crump puts it, “banking while Black.” The Black farmers who are treated with literally dangerous dismissal from corporate entities. And, of course, the family members who have had to watch their loved ones die in real time for no reason other than base racism.
Even hearing from the officers who have taken these lives, or the jurors who neglected to find all of them guilty, or the government representatives required to oversee millions in monetary damages would give us more insight into how these tragedies keep happening. Is there any way to fix any elements of these devastatingly broken systems? Other than Crump, who is trying, and how? Who is not, and why?
These are questions that serve as an undercurrent through “Civil,” since Crump himself notes that he gets around 500 calls a day for representation. He suggests that each high-payout civil case he wins will motivate changes from municipalities that can’t afford others. But this feels like a superficial fix to a hemorrhaging wound, and the film’s tight focus on the man who represents these victims leaves us without a wider perspective.
We walk away grateful that his clients have an advocate, while wondering if there is any chance at all for this nation to lessen his load.
“Civil” can currently be seen in theaters and streaming on Netflix.