Civil rights attorney Ben Crump commanded the attention of the audience inside the New World Center Performance Hall in Miami Beach for the kickoff to the 2022 American Black Film Festival on Wed. June 15, where he took the stage to introduce “Civil,” the upcoming Netflix documentary about his life and work.
“I keep getting asked, ‘Why did I do this?’ Crump recounted. “I said, I understand, we always have to fight in two courts when we’re fighting for the lives and the dignity and the humanity of Black people: the court of law and the court of public opinion.”
Speaking before crowd of filmmakers, film fans and some personal friends, Crump declared how the documentary wouldn’t be possible without Kenya Barris, who knows how to portray the Black experience on film.
“Kenya created ‘Black-ish’ and wrote ‘Girls Trip’ and [created] ‘America’s Next Top Model’ … We present those experiences in Black America, but we can have other experiences we believe are just as important,” Crump added, saying the the prolific producer is “necessary to our culture.”
Crump also thanked award-winning filmmaker Nadia Hallgren, who directed the documentary, as the trio took the stage with Netflix’s LeLoni Smith and ABFF Ventures president Nicole Friday as part of ABFF’s opening night ceremony. (Roger Ross Williams and Lauren Cioffi also produced the film).
Debuting on June 19 on Netflix, “Civil” follows Crump’s work as the killing of unarmed Black people like Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and George Floyd devastated people of color across the United States and the world. The documentary features behind-the-scenes footage of the attorney tackling these cases, allowing audiences to witness his hectic year as he travels to represent the distraught families and advise them on how to ensure their loved one’s story is told.
“‘Civil’ follows my life for one year during what we believe is the most significant call to action in Civil Rights history,” Crump told Variety on the red carpet before the screening. “One of the things about ‘Civil’ that I am so thankful to Nadia for is that hopefully everyone around the world will get to see the Black experience and our mission to raise the value of Black life.”
Crump believes that the documentary’s message is important now more than ever.
“We have to be civil to one another. We have to choose tolerance over this race replacement or lynch mob mentality,” he said. “We have to choose humanity over white supremacy. And most of all, we have to fight for love over hate.”
Barris also noted the significance of having “Civil” screen as part of the ABFF lineup. “Ben has been an advocate for us and Jeff and Nicole have been advocates for us, and combining those things, and people showing up for each other is what we’re all about, and how we continue to progress. To be part of that tradition means everything to me,” he explained.
As the documentary has traveled along the festival circuit, Barris says a few takeaways have come to the forefront as he talks to audiences and fellow industry vets.
“This isn’t about money or lawsuits; it’s about humanity, it’s about the idea that our humanity has not always been seen in the way that we wanted,” Barris said. “I think that we need advocates to make sure that people see and hear us and understand that we have humanity as everyone else does.”
Onstage, Hallgren explained how she came to direct the documentary shortly after the debut of her last project, Netflix’s “Becoming,” which followed First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Kenya called me to ask if I was interested in filming a movie on Ben Crump, and it was like everything I had been asking for came true. We quickly grabbed our cameras and hit the road with Attorney Crump,” Hallgren shared.
“Civil” begins with an emotional scene, as Crump gets a phone call regarding the death of George Floyd. Audiences also got a view of Crump’s personal life, as the movie includes footage of the attorney early in his career, his days in college at Florida State University and how his work takes a toll on his family life due to his frequent traveling. The audience clapped and cheered along with footage of Crump’s successes, while the film also reveals the strain he endures in dealing with so many cases of injustice.
“All of them are significant. All of them matter. I try to fight every single one so we can get the biggest result possible in the civil arena,” Crump told Variety, explaining why he continues to push forward.
“Only the police can arrest people, and only the prosecutors can put them in jail,” he noted. “Still, as private lawyers, we can fight under the Seventh Amendment of the United States to get the highest verdict or the highest settlement possible. We will continue to raise the value of Black life to the point where it is financially unsustainable for them to be able to kill Black people.”
[Pictured: ‘Civil’ producer Kenya Barris, director Nadia Hallgren and attorney Ben Crump with ABFF’s Nicole and Jeff Friday.]
Additional reporting by Angelique Jackson