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His Life Mattered: Director Nadia Hallgren and Attorney Ben Crump on CIVIL

One of the most moving moments in Nadia Hallgren’s new Netflix documentary, “CIVIL,” occurs when Attorney Crump, having won his client a $27 million in the case of a Black man’s murder, is asked, “What does the verdict mean?” He responds, “His life mattered.” It reminded me of my encounter with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom I was fortunate to meet back when I was a law student. His advice to me was similar to what he told Attorney Crump, “Don’t argue what is legal, argue what is right.”

It was a privilege for me to interview Hallgren and Attorney Crump about their film, which serves as immensely fitting programming on Juneteenth, but is essential viewing on any given day of the year.  One of my surprises in the interview was the optimism that Attorney Crump still holds, while seeing Crump's world up close had almost the opposite affect on Director Hallgren. Below, you can read an edited transcript of our conversation, along with video excerpts of the interview.

When it comes to documentaries, I’ve been on both sides of the camera. I’m working on a documentary now, and I’ve been the subject of one with my husband, Steve James’s “Life Itself,” so I know how difficult it is to get the subjects to relax and to trust you. What is your process for getting not only Ben Crump but any of your documentary subjects to trust you to go on this journey of allowing you to make a film about them?

Nadia Hallgren (NH): I would say that, for me, my process is always to be myself. I remember when I first learned that I was going to meet Michelle Obama. She was going to decide in that meeting if I was the right filmmaker to tell her story, so I had this whole sort of mental breakdown of how I was going to impress the First Lady. I’m not highly educated, so I wasn’t going to impress her with where I went to school. At the time, I didn’t have any big film credits, so I couldn’t impress her with my résumé. 

But I just knew that if I went in there and was just honest about who I am and my life experience, that was the best that I could do, and that’s what I did. By the end of our meeting, she was like, “Let’s do this,” and I was just so moved by that. I took that same approach with Attorney Crump. We met on a Zoom and I told him that it was important for me to tell his story at this moment, especially as a Black filmmaker, and I was just going to join him on his journey though life. I didn’t go in there trying to change what he was doing. I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, and I think that that’s what he appreciated in me.

Ben Crump (BC): It’s so interesting, Chaz, because I’m before the cameras a lot, but I’m there pushing the cause of the life of my client, not trying to reveal my inner workings. It’s always about the client and the cause, so when I actually started processing this documentary project, I said, “It’s one thing for me to expose myself and make myself vulnerable on camera, but it’s another thing to have my wife, my mother and my daughter also be exposed.” I concluded that it was worth it because of the mission. Nadia has given us this global bullhorn to be able to show what I do in America on a daily basis, arguing in the court of the law and the court of public opinion that we, as Black people, are not insignificant, not irrelevant and that we are valued. 

The other element that became very real for me, and has taken on even more significance, is the safety of my family—especially my daughter, my two adopted nephews and my wife. That’s a different kind of vulnerability to contend with. I’m used to getting sick people threatening me. I just never want to put my family in harm’s way, and Nadia was very careful not to reveal our address, while still showing the devotion I have to them. I’m doing the case involving the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, and I told Nadia that some death threats were sent to our home. I try to intercept them, but my wife did open and read one, and called me about. I don’t want them to have to deal with what I’m doing, and Nadia, to her credit, really looked out for my family.

People tended to think that I, as a trial attorney, had an outgoing personality, but it’s actually a brave and courageous personality when I’m using it to advocate for a person or cause that I care about. So I recognize that you use your outgoing personality or outsized personality to help your clients, not yourself, and people lose that distinction. Was it in the shooting process or the editing process that you were able to show a balance of Attorney Crump’s professional life, with his home life as a married man of 22 years?

NH: I would say that it was really in the edit that we were able to strike that balance. A lot of this film is very heavy, with the amount of cases that Attorney Crump takes on and the level of emotion that people feel when they watch it. We knew that we had to give the audience an opportunity to have a moment to breathe and to sort of process what they’re watching before moving onto the next complex case that Ben is taking on, so we really wanted to make sure that there was a level of humor in the film. Ben is also just a really funny person, and we wanted to show that. It helps when people can engage in something that is educational and is teaching them something about the world, but is also allowing them to laugh and really go on that emotional rollercoaster with us. 

Many of those humorous moments are interactions with Ben’s family. We have him talking to his mom and you see how close they are and the great relationship that they have. We also show him parenting over the phone with his daughter when she gets a new puppy, and he’s not being completely onboard with that decision, but also has a great conversation with his wife about it. So we knew that we needed to have those moments in the film so that the audience can have some levity while they are also watching something that is so important.

When Steve James was making the film about me and Roger, there were times, such as when he was in the hospital, when, I didn’t want the whole crew there. I told Steve, “We don’t even want you to shoot today, but if you’re going to shoot, you shoot, not someone from the crew. You come in with a single camera and you shoot and do the lighting and everything.” How did you balance your duties as a cinematographer with your duties as the director of the film?

NH: “Life Itself” is a beautiful film, by the way. I’m lucky enough that I came up in documentary filmmaking as a cinematographer, so I have almost two decades of experience filming. When we set out to make this film, it was the height of the pandemic, and there were still no vaccines or anything like that. Most of the production completely shut down because it was too dangerous to send people out into the field, and most people were just home. There wasn’t a lot happening except, like Ben says, “killing the Black people” during that time. That’s really what it felt like. So I made a decision along with my producer Lauren Cioffi to keep as few people exposed out in the world and to be able to move quickly, because Ben’s schedule sometimes changes by the hour. It’s really hard to say, “Let’s get five, six people on an airplane with all their gear,” and then the next thing we know, that plan completely changes and we have to go somewhere else. 

So I packed my camera bag with my microphone, and Lauren and I hit the road. We met up with Ben, and much of the film was made that way. It was myself and Lauren in the room, or sometimes I’d be alone. Ben and I are early risers, so I knew I could text him at five in the morning, and he’d be like, “I’m getting ready.” That allowed us to have these really intimate, personal moments together before the whole day even really started where we could film, we could talk and we could get to know each other. By 9am, Ben’s phone is blowing up and it feels like the whole world is trying to get him involved in something, and so that’s when we would switch to a more observational mode where we just follow what Ben is doing. Ben’s always doing something, so that made our jobs a lot easier.

BC: Sometimes I give speeches to universities about social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion, and it is in the contract that I say, “Everything is subject to change. I will speak on this date and this evening unless a marginalized person, a Black person is killed unjustly and in a dramatic fashion somewhere in the United States and that could literally be any day.”

I remember when Daunte Wright was killed during the time that you were waiting to hear about the George Floyd verdict. If this had happened in a movie, you wouldn’t have believed it. How are you able to switch gears so quickly? 

BC: Well, thank god I have a good team with me, along with great lawyers and a great support staff. We are prepared for a George Floyd call or a Breonna Taylor call to come. Every day we pray that it doesn’t happen, but when it comes, we are ready to address it quickly. Daunte Wright was particularly heartbreaking because we really believed that we were at a turning point with George Floyd. We thought they were not going to be so quick to shoot first and try to give Black people the benefit of consideration. But then, less than ten miles away from where the trial is going on, a guy shoots this kid, and they stopped him because they said he had an air freshener. It’s like, “Really?!” It was just shocking. 

I also think about Andre Hill, who was killed two days before Christmas. I had to explain to my daughter why daddy was leaving during Christmastime when I told them I was going to be home for Christmas. But I had to get there because I knew had we waited until the New Year, it would’ve been swept under the rug. The police would’ve framed him, and he would’ve just been another insignificant Negro killed by the police. They’d say, “Nothing to see here,” and I said, “I’ll fight for them to see us.”

I think that there are some people called by destiny or by grace, at some point in their lives, to do things. We don’t know when we’re going to be called, and we don’t know if we’re going to be up to the mission. It struck me when you said that the Trayvon Martin case prepared you for the George Floyd case. What did you mean by that?

BC: So many times, you are fighting out here and you can’t get the attention. Nadia and I talked a lot about my strategy to try to make the media cover Black life and Black tragedies. I’m dealing with that in Buffalo now. They’re trying to just move on, and I’m like, “No no, white supremacy killed these ten Black people and they matter.” I think about Martin Lee Anderson, the 14-year-old kid in 2006 that we referenced who was killed in boot camp, and how the eight people who were charged with his death were found not guilty. Then I think about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice—all of these people killed by police. And I think about how nobody was held accountable for the rape of thirteen Black women by white police officers in Oklahoma City. 

You deal with all this abuse by police of marginalized people of color, and Trayvon raised the consciousness level. That was the first time, I believe, that America really gave some consideration to a Black child being killed unjustly, and so by the time we got to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Andre Hill and Daunte Wright, I think Trayvon had conditioned not only my mind but my law firm to be able to galvanize the world’s attention and the media’s attention and not let them go past it. I thought this was so important because we had all the world’s attention and we could finally show that the police treat us differently than they treat white people. That is how Trayvon helped me prepare for George Floyd.

NH: When you are making a film, you think about your character’s motivation. People ask Ben, “What’s his motivation? Is it money? Is it being on the TV cameras all the time?”, and we really wanted to tell the backstory of his experience with Trayvon Martin and how devastating the outcome of George Zimmerman not being convicted was to him.

That shot of Ben’s face (during the Trayvon Martin decision) just broke my heart. 

NH: Like you said, you can’t write this stuff. It was so clear to us that Ben was ready for this moment. Everything that he had ever done had led him to this moment, especially that experience with Trayvon Martin. It fueled every decision that he made, and it was important to us that the audience understood that so that when they question why is Ben doing this, there’s your answer right there. You fully understand the breadth of his work.

The other thing that I think you do so beautifully in this film is you show how he doesn’t just show up to these places, the families are calling him to be there. I used to hear the same thing being said about Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton. But people summon you?

NH: Absolutely. I asked Ben, “How do you get in contact with these families? How do they find you?”, and he said, “They call us. It’s against the ethics of the Bar Association to reach out to people when someone is killed.” Ben’s phone rings incessantly with people who have been wronged and are asking for his help. It was really important for us to make that clear because there’s so much misinformation out there, which is why we say at the top of the film, “Ben Crump is a civil lawyer.” He also often gets accused of losing these criminal cases, which he has absolutely nothing to do with. We knew we had a lot of work to do with educating our audience so that they were ready to actually understand what the film was, and what Ben’s role actually is in these civil cases, whether or not people go to prison, or whether or not families are awarded a certain amount of money.

How many attorneys are in your law firm?

BC: Eleven work directly with us, and then we have a network of over eighty lawyers around the country who work with us in different states. Attorney Tony Romanucci works with me a lot on police cases, and Attorney Bob Hilliard works a lot with me on the Banking While Black cases, so we have everybody set up like a system ready to answer the bell when they come in. Nadia went into the CAWC (Connections for Abused Women and their Children) in Chicago, and she sat there watching the people there processing all of these cases. I never want to sound like sour grapes or anything like that. I honestly believe that the reason it rings so much is that Black people in America so often get kicked in the face and are disrespected. They don’t have anywhere to turn, they don’t know who to turn to, not even to get justice but just to be heard. I think that’s why so many people call us. We do so many discrimination cases where Black executives in corporations are being called the “n-word.” This is in 2020, so they call us up and we’re dealing with these calls constantly. I hear people say that they tell their family members, “If anything ever happens to me, call Ben Crump.” It’s already in their mind.

I bet a lot of people will be surprised to hear that the police abuse cases are only about five to ten percent of your practice. Is that true?

BC: Absolutely. It’s the least profitable division of my practice. We do a lot of mass tort litigation and a lot of class action litigation. For instance, I’ve fought Monsanto for the Black farmers and others who got cancer from using a brand of weed killer. Then there’s the talcum powder cases where all these women, especially Black women, were told to use a lot of baby powder on our private areas, and it was causing ovarian cancer. And the case involving Truvada, the HIV medication that was causing people to lose bone density. Those are the cases that we do that are profitable. When these other cases come to us, my partners are looking at me like, “We’re taking another one, Ben?”, and thank god I’m the boss. I’m like, “Yes we are.” 

NH: That’s why it was important for us in the film to show Banking while Black and the Black farmers and the environmental racism case. We really wanted people to understand that while Ben was dealing with these very high profile cases that everyone has heard of, there are hundreds of cases that come in that no one has ever heard of and that are not dealing with police excessive force. Ben is really focused on creating a level playing field in all aspects of American society, not just in law enforcement.

I notice that it was important to you to show both sides of Banking While Black, not only the young woman who was discriminated against over a $90 check, but the White police officers who took her to the store to get milk for her baby.

BC: I never want people to think that we are against police. As Black people, our communities need a police presence as much as anyone else does, and so we are not against police. But we are against bad police who are beating us and shooting us in the back and busting in our apartments and killing our daughters. I thought it was so important that we show the white officer and Middle Eastern officer who gave this young Black mother some dignity and some support.

Why was it important for you to show the humanity of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, rather than make them a statistic? You show who they were in the world and intimate at perhaps what they could have become in the world. 

NH: As a Black filmmaker, any time you get an opportunity to make a film, you at the same time have this responsibility, knowing that there is much work to do in terms of public perception. It was important for me to show a side of Black humanity that I know, because those are the communities that I come from. Those details and nuances of our lives are things that a lot of people don’t know, because oftentimes, that’s not what we see in the media or hear in the news stories, that’s for sure. We always know that if someone gets killed by a police officer, the first thing that occurs to them is character assassination, not talking about all the wonderful things that they did in their life and how many people loved them. That’s never the story that we hear, so this was really an opportunity for me and my filmmaking team to tell those stories that people oftentimes overlook.

It seems that destiny tapped both Attorney Crump and you, Nadia, on the shoulder. After making a film about our former First Lady, Michelle Obama, and now Attorney Crump, does that give you any hope for the future?

NH: I’ve been incredibly lucky to be in the presence of such Black excellence and greatness in my lifetime. I spent two years with Michelle Obama and her family and her team, and then a few months later, my two-year journey with Attorney Crump began. The window into our world from their perspectives that I’ve had is truly special, and it’s a “two steps forward, two steps back” type of situation. Just the fact that we had a Black president and family in the White House in our lifetimes is amazing, and we’re all so proud of that. But then, realizing the full breadth of the scrutiny that the family faced and the pain and the disrespect that would’ve never ever happened toward a white First Family, just helps you understand the duality of what progress in America feels like and looks like. 

With Attorney Crump, he has a hopefulness that is infectious. You want to be as hopeful as he is that things will change, and I know there is progress that has been made. But then, if his phone didn’t ring as much as it did, with people being wronged and harmed and killed, then maybe I would feel a little more hopeful. But his phone is ringing more now than it was even when we were filming with him. That is the complexity to our lives. Progress feels like it gets made at times and the same progress feels like it gets taken away from us on a daily basis.

What would you like to see happen after people watch “CIVIL”? What do you want them to get from the film, and what are you hoping that it will do here in America? 

NH: What I would love is for people to watch this film and have a much more nuanced understanding of Black life in America. I want them to feel like they can do something and be compelled to help change the world the way Attorney Crump is in their own way. One thing I loved about working with Ben is he always says, “Whoever you are, wherever you come from, you have a place in this, whether it’s being a civil rights attorney or a filmmaker or a student or a great neighbor.” We could all do something. I really hope that this film helps people reconnect with that spirit and know that we can collectively change things in this country.

BC: I want people to see, first of all, that Nadia Hallgren is brilliant. I think this young Afro-Puerto Rican sister is just a master filmmaker, and I hope and pray that they will understand that. In light of where we’re at in the world today, you obviously try to focus on the mission, but it’s not lost on you what’s happening in the world. 

My heart is still heavy with what happened in Buffalo, where the young white supremacist man massacred those innocent Black people. I keep thinking that “CIVIL” is coming at this precise moment where, more than ever, we need to engage in civil behavior with one another. Hopefully after people watch this movie, they will realize that we have to fight for tolerance over this race replacement, lynch mob mentality. We have to champion and fight for our young people to support humanity over this white supremacy, this notion of superiority of any kind. Certainly, fundamentally, we hope that they will engage in being civil with one another versus resorting to violence and guns and all these things that kill us because they respect the humanity in all of us. 

That’s what I really hope that they see I’m trying to fight for in a court of law, but more importantly, in a court of public opinion. I’m saying that we all are valued. I’m fighting to raise the value of Black life in America because we want to make it financially unsustainable to be able to kill Black people unjustly. There’s going to be a consequence that makes the city manager and the mayor say to the police department, “We can’t afford to kill any more Black boys. You can’t shoot them in the back.” That’s what you want them to do, to look at them like you look at someone who is white. You wouldn’t shoot a white man in the back, so why do you feel so compelled to pull the trigger when it’s a Black boy running away from you? I want to say that it was privilege to talk with you, Chaz.

"CIVIL" is now streaming on Netflix. Click here to read our critic Odie Henderson's review of the film.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 22nd year.

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