Ordinarily, home is the first place a filmmaker might look to start to tell the life story of someone, but during the year like the one civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump had from 2020 to 2021, getting there might’ve been the most difficult ask “Civil” director Nadia Hallgren had to make.
“We joined him a few times in Tallahassee, knowing that so much of who Ben is and how he operates and what his motivation is is really inspired by his family and his mom, his wife and daughter, the community he has [there] — he went to college there,” says Hallgren, who may have been as excited to see Crump’s family as the lawyer himself on the rare detours from the road to justice that takes him criss-crossing America on a daily basis. “But it’s funny because we were always asking Ben, ‘When are you going home?’ He’s so busy, it was like he would call us and just be like, ‘I think I’m going to get home this weekend for a day or two.’”
Hallgren couldn’t know when she’d see her own home again, either, when she signed on for “Civil,” after already adopting an itinerant lifestyle to follow around Michelle Obama for her celebrated adaptation of the First Lady’s autobiography “Becoming.” Still, she couldn’t resist when the opportunity arose to join Crump, whose work pursuing wrongful death suits against police departments in cases such as the murders of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown where the criminal justice system had clearly failed. His practice had already drawn the interest of Netflix, which had initially pursued a dramatic series set inside his firm with “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, before all sides decided a documentary might be more interesting, yet no one could anticipate just how true that would be when Hallgren touched down with only her field producer Lauren Cioffi to begin filming shortly after Crump began representing the family of George Floyd in the days after his death in May 2020.
Although the national attention to the case and the protests around the country that Floyd’s inspired inevitably loom large over “Civil,” Hallgren takes incredible care to show the full extent of his efforts and take the full measure of the man as Crump takes on cases as varied as a discrimination claim against a bank in which a young woman’s attempt to cash a check results in both the check and her ID are confiscated to Black farmers in the South experiencing medical issues from the chemicals used on their crops, deprived of the same training that their white corporate counterparts are given, illustrating the systemic racism that he strives to whittle away at while negotiating a landmark settlement in the Floyd case that could go a long way towards inspiring internal police reform. As Crump pulls over to the side of the road for national TV appearances as he shuttles from state to state, meeting with one grieving family after another who he can comfort not only with words but demonstrable action, a highly sophisticated portrait emerges of the daily grind necessary to achieve anything approaching equality for Black Americans as the lawyer and his network of associates meet injustice at every level of society, turning a role on defense into progress.
Hallgren, who rose to prominence as an impressive sensitive director of photography on such films as Dawn Porter’s “Trapped” and Ramona S. Diaz’s “Motherland,” clearly employs the savvy she picked up from her DP days to get out of the way of the history unfolding before her, quite literally crouching in corners during a family’s most fraught moments after learning of a loved one’s unjust passing and offering a strikingly intimate snapshot of Crump when it’s clearly difficult to pin him down for any length of time. Following the film’s recent premiere at Tribeca, “Civil” is now streaming on Netflix and the filmmaker spoke about the 18 months she spent in Crump’s company, witnessing history and the instincts she’s developed over the years to always be in the right place at the right time.
At the premiere, Roger Ross Williams, one of the producers on the film, had said you actually told him before filming this would be the most important project you’d ever work on. What did you see in this from the start?
At that time so much was happening in America and it was shortly after the murder of George Floyd. “Becoming” had just come out, so I was getting a lot of opportunities as a filmmaker to pretty much make anything I wanted to, but I knew that in that moment, I had to make a film about what was happening in America. As a verite filmmaker, history was unfolding and that’s where I always want to be. I want to be in the middle of unfolding events and it was, of course, something that was so personal to me, so when the call came in from our producer Kenya Barris that there was this opportunity to follow attorney Ben Crump, I just knew I had to do it. It was like the thing I was asking for, figuring out how to tell a story about this moment, and all the emotion I was feeling at that time really moved me to feel like this could possibly be the most important thing that I do.
This is brilliant structurally in how you’re able to reflect the fully breadth of the cases that Ben Crump takes on while you’re able to see how he’s always moving to the next with so many of them. How early did you know how this might unfold as a film?
When I first went out with Ben, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know the way he worked as a lawyer and I didn’t understand his law practice. It was just like get out there and start to figure it out, but very quickly I realized what Ben does is what you see him do in the film. He meets with clients, he engages with families. He takes on the case and he [has a bar license] in five or six states, but he takes cases all over the world, so for him to actually be able to do that he has to have a team of people that he works with on the backend, so he has a large team of lawyers that he works with – researchers and just some of the most brilliant attorneys around the country and while they’re helping to build a case, Ben keeps going and taking on new things that are happening. So we really follow him in real time and the entire time I was with Ben, I felt like if I could take the experience I was having and bring it to an audience, it would take us to a deeper understanding of the work because it brought me to a whole new place and understanding of what he does, how things get done and at the level that he does it.
Ben Crump’s voiceover seems unusually intimate. What was it like to get Ben to reflect and speak to his experience?
As we were filming with Ben, there’s not a lot of quiet time I would say. [laughs] If anyone knows Ben, they know to call him at six o’clock in the morning because that’s the time you can get him before everyone else starts calling him, so it was interesting. I actually shared some of the film with Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, the directors of “American Factory” who are also mentors of mine, and they shared with me how they got some of their VO for their film through a voice recorder. Part of their strategy since the factory was so loud — they couldn’t do VO or interviews in the factory that sounded clean — [was that] they took some of the individuals in the film outside or in their homes and they talked to them in this voice recorder. So [they] were like, “You should try doing that with Ben” and we just did that. It became this thing where I would go to his hotel early in the morning when it was really quiet but have conversations with him where I’d ask him to talk into the voice recorder so it felt very natural and conversational, and we did that for months. We had all these recordings that we went through and then it helped drive the story forward.
Were there any threads you ended up following that took you by surprise or led you in a direction you didn’t expect?
So many things took me by surprise, especially seeing what we ended up referring to in our edit as first encounters. It was this idea that we knew that Ben was meeting with families of all different types of cases all the time, but what was so special about that very first knock at the door is that families reach out to this high-profile attorney and they’re one of thousands, so being chosen by Ben to take on that case is often times such a relief for the family that they think they may be able to seek justice. That was one thread that we tried to stick with throughout the film was the moment that Ben shows up and exactly how things unfold from that moment on.
Ben and his associates seemed really impressed at how you were able to comport yourself to those moments when they’re so fraught. Having recently spoken with Deann Borshay Liem, the director of “Crossings,” I know you’ve been to North Korea and back as a cinematographer, so I imagine you’re prepared for anything. Did your cinematography experience come in handy here?
Absolutely, my training and craft as a verite cinematographer has been everything to my directing. For this film in particular, we filmed at the height of COVID where production was virtually shut down everywhere and I knew as the director it was my responsibility that whoever I brought out into the field, we kept them as safe as possible. that was really challenging pre-vaccine and everything we have now, so along with my producer Lauren Cioffi, I decided I would be cinematographer on the film and I did sound at times when I had to. We just went out there and did it.
I’ve also been lucky enough to be mentored by filmmakers like Kirsten Johnston and Bob Richmond and some of the best verite filmmakers that we know of — and [being a cinematographer added to] my ability to be able to see things unfold and know where I need to be and really what I feel like is where the emotion is in a scene. Where we’re in that scene with [the relatives of the late] Andre Hill and [someone] says, “We met playing chess and then the friendship grew from that,” and Ben’s like, “Please say that. Please say that because the media doesn’t think about Black people playing chess,” you see the mechanics in Ben’s head working and [my experience went into] the coverage of that scene to be able to show everything happening all at once [because] when you’re in those rooms, you’re able to be in the moment, identify what is happening and the story I want to share about Ben and these interactions. It’s exciting for me as a filmmaker, but also it gives me the relief that when I’m in those rooms and behind the camera that it’s all been covered and we can walk away with a scene that we’re all really proud of that can tell the story.