Netflix, a streaming platform once best known for its original series, is slowly becoming an immense library of documentaries.
From food tours to true crime to the environment, there’s something for everyone. The newest documentary to land on the streamer, Civil, premieres today June 19th. Civil is an almost two-hour, unflinching look into a year in the life of civil attorney Ben Crump as he handles civil cases ranging from police shootings to environmental racism, and banking while Black. Interspersed with footage of him traveling to meet families and clients, are glimpses into Attorney Crump’s home life with his wife Genae and his young daughter Brooklynn, and anecdotes of his upbringing. Civil is directed by Nadia Hallgren, the director of another documentary streaming on Netflix, Becoming, which followed the life of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Kenya Barris (blackish, Black AF) and Roger Ross Williams are producers.
I was able to join Attorney Crump, Nadia Hallgren, and Kenya Barris during an intimate lunch and conversation, mediated by Jazmine Hughes from the New York Times, and a subsequent Q & A. You can find a recap of the afternoon below.
Hughes: Well, so speaking of Attorney Crump, I do want to know, I mean, already Kenya and Nadia have talked about how, you know, just incredible your life is, but had you ever thought that you were like a documentary worth figure? Had you ever thought of your life in such large terms?
Crump: Well, I don’t think about those things too often. What I do think about is the mission, Jazmine, and that is we are trying to give our children a[n] equal opportunity at life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and my personal hero Thurgood was, you know, he understood it as well, that you are really trying to put these issues in the court of public opinion, beyond the court of law. And as I often say, when you representing a marginalized person of color, especially a Black person in America, you got to fight in two courts. Obviously the court of law, but first the court of public opinion. Because if you can’t win death, there’s no guarantee you are ever going to get into a court of law, a la Mike Brown, a la Eric Garner, a la Tamir Rice- all of them. You gotta go try to make the case for Black humanity first for them to say, okay, we are going to give you the consideration to finally have your day in court. It is not promised in America if you are a Black person. And so I understand doing this documentary gives me a bigger bullhorn to be able to speak truth to power because that’s what it’s really about. That’s where, you know, with Kenya Barris using his influence and resources saying, “Netflix, I’m going to do a project and is gonna speak truth to power.” And, and I’ll applaud to him to the day I die because think about how many things Ken, you could have done. I mean, he could have did anything, but he said, “No, this isn’t important”. And then I joined him. Nadia had just finished doing, Becoming, y’all at the time, the most-watched documentary in Netflix history, she did, she could have picked anything. So, and she came to pick us and we’re happy you picked us Nadia.
Hallgren: I picked you too. <laugh> I’m happy y’all picked me.
Crump: I didn’t think, but I do think the whole reason I’m doing anything in television or Hollywood is because you are trying to influence the hearts and minds of those future jurors. And I understand that we, we live around in America, uh, white citizens make up the majority population. So when you go in courtrooms, most of your juries are gonna be majority white. And so I don’t want them to always believe that Trayvon was up to no good. And these stereotypes, these that our children are menaces to society. I want them to know that Breonna Taylor was just like your child in college, working hard to get your degree. And so, we normally have to spend hours during, jury selection trying to just get to that step, but with this documentary, hopefully they come in saying no, no, we are going to give them the consideration of humanity, just like we would without children.
Hughes: That’s great. That’s what word, right? So those three of you, including myself, the four of all of us in this room are, you know, we’re so committed to the telling of Black stories and dealing with Black lives. And I think we all know that sometimes there’s a push to end a story about a Black person or Black people on a note of optimism or positivity. Like “Nevertheless, we persisted.” What I really enjoyed about the film is that you struck a really realistic tone. And I wonder how you all thought about that and especially editing, constructing, and just, and especially what you wanted the viewer to walk away with?
Hallgren: That’s a great question. Um, the, the crafting of this edit was incredibly challenging. We had so much footage and so many important storylines that we wanted to tell. Our first draft of this film was 11 hours long and it was agonizing the amount of details we had to cut out of cases that were so important to all of us, because we knew that if we gave one case a lot of time, it would leave out another case. And so that was, that was very hard. And I think when it came to the ending of the film, I really thought about Ben’s spirit and how he truly sees the world. And despite the tragedy that Ben encounters every single day -and it’s way more than I think most humans can handle- he does have this optimistic spirit and I wanted to stay true to that vision he had of the world while still, including my, maybe more pessimistic, uh, the feeling that I had, especially after spending two years with Attorney Crump and seeing the relentlessness of the tragedies, the discrimination, the justice, and it never stopped just cause we stopped filming it. It definitely didn’t stop. I think it got worse, worse, worse. And so I think that that was sort of the balance that we, that we wanted to, to strike in the film.
Hughes: Do you think you’re more or less of a pessimist now?
Hughes: What about you Attorney Crump?.
Crump: <Laugh> No, I, I believe we may have battles that break our heart, but I have no doubt we will win the war. The enemies of equality, we will not win. You know, we got precedent on our side. They said, you know, slavery was going to be the status quo forever. We overcame slavery. They said segregation was going to be the status quo forever. We overcame and desegregated America. The precedent of our ancestors is what drives me more than anything else, because think about it now, what they had to endure. And they kept the faith. They believed that we would have this day where all these brilliant Black people would be college-educated, movie producers, movie directed, they in cotton fields, singing and praying for the world. My children’s grandchildren’s children will have, and so based on that precedent, that’s how I know we gonna win. There is nothing that the white supremacists can throw at us that is going to stop our people from overcoming. Nothing.
Barris: Because of the things around it. I think sometimes people may get confused. This is a profile of a man. I’m saying in the case of not him, I think that we could pick up and go do two or three more docs around just what’s going on right now. That would be compelling in their own way. I feel like the world is not able- she said, 11 hours, it was 11 hours, a lot of scenes cutting because there were one of the cases. A case for Harvard, that, to me, is one of the most interesting cases of [inaudible]. It is the case that sets the conversation of reparations, and like how much we talked to- we went back and forth, like, you know. And what he can do, and like the criticism saying “He’s chasing the money” The money is not ever a replacement, but it is it is a something to try to give the family something to move forward. But more importantly, for the bigger audiences, or the bigger message, messaging is to try to put some sort of value in our humanity, which has been devalued…. but I feel like, even when you’re hearing, you know, it wasn’t on his brain, like “I’m gonna break the record.” When you’re getting these things, it’s, it’s, there’s a version of that you might get it might hit you here as well. But he’s not saying I want to break it from a personal standpoint. He’s saying I want to break the record because every time you think about raising your gun, or doing something, because if these are the people that just kill, how many people are injured, how many people harassed and maybe maimed, brutalized… I mean, look at his family that lets him get up and keep going. You know, and fighting for us. I think that’s what he is going to do.
Crump: Money come up so much, I guess I want to address it. Nadia did such an incredible job on the trailer. And it’s kind of funny because I’ve heard people say, maybe Black people we just expressive. Black people watched the trailer and started clapping. So that was a good thing. But you know, the reality is this here. You do want to try to do anything you can to just stop it. Stop. Try to prevent it, slow it down. I mean, how many times- y’all are journalists. Y’all see the hashtags like every week, they shot another Black man in the back, they’ve choked another Black man, Brown man- they killed a sister. And you know Black women never get justice. That’s why the Breonna aspect of the documentary was so important to me. Because, you know, there has never been a police officer convicted of a felony conviction that anybody is aware of for killing a Black woman in America. Never. They had the Washington Post did the synopses where in the last five years, they say there were 200 Black women killed by police. And the eight that was charged, four of them were dismissed, four of whom was convicted of misdemeanors, and the other 192, oh well.
Barris: And I think the idea of doing something. I think for Nadia and I , this was doing something, in the way that we could. I think, seeing the time, Nadia put into this and effort. And, you know, it’s like her point of view, you’re trying to, you know, when you are presenting entertainment, you have to do it sometime when you don’t block the barriers of entry, which in this is sort of hard, because we are so angled at saying like, “I don’t need to tell a fair story, I get to tell the honest story.” And the honest story is gonna look so bad, it’s gonna be a barrier eventually. But you have to allow people to sort of get in, and you guys, when you’re doing your writing, you know, when you’re writing a story, sometimes, they want you to write a news if you’re not a person of color experiencing this. And I kind of feel like the idea that we have to sort of deny what we know to be true, in order to play within the sort of lanes that they’ve given us, in itself is a really, really, really hard place to be. And I think that was why for us, Nadia was such an amazing filmmaker, because she was able to take stories and do them for the masses. I’m a populist, I feel like, you know, that there is a version of our, I think our biggest chances at sort of moving the culture forward is when they hear us.
Hughes: This reminds me of you know, I was doing some research for a story a few months ago, and Cicely Tyson talked about a press conference that she did for Sounder, and a white journalist stood up and he admitted that he was really uncomfortable with the film because he didn’t realize that Black children call their parents daddy the way that his white children would call him. And it’s just like, it just reminds me the immense importance so that you were just saying when you have this project itself and everyone’s work. We have time for one more question. Okay, so since we’re all here, we’re all family and we all have the same brain disease, which is that we are press. I am very curious, Attorney Crump, of how you go about forming the relationship with the press, especially In picking out various details of a person’s story, trying to keep people’s names in the news cycles can give us a little bit of insight into that
Crump: Certainly. It is a lot of the strategy that I employ with the jury. It’s chess, not checkers. I go into it knowing that they don’t really care about Trayvon, they don’t care about Breonna, they don’t care about George, you know, a Black person got killed, why we want to write about this? Why we’re going to write about this twice? Why we’re going to write about this three times? And so you go into it and you are trying to draw a picture that this is like your child, this is important to your community, as well as the Black community. So for instance, one of the things I continue to do with it, you all know about Trayvon, and we tried to draw the analogy of a homeowner’s association neighborhood watch person having a gun patrolling the community. Like, we draw that narrative, like, the guy had a gun and a kid has Skittles and an iced tea. And yeah, like, how’s that a fair fight? And so you started trying to frame that narrative. So it has to be not just about your Black child, or the Black person or the Brown person, you have to show that issue is there relevant to your life as well. And so you have to make it about issues like that, then you have to see the long game. Everybody’s saying? Well, you know, things aren’t getting better. Go back and look at history. When you can change policies and impact policies, it matters. Voting Rights Act ’65 passed after, you know, a lot of work by a lot of people. 1966, that election, nothing changed. 10 years- 1975, The Voting Rights Act had a profound impact on the electorate looked in America. President Biden signed that executive order on the two-year anniversary. We’re not going to see change, I think immediately, it’s incremental progress. But every day, you just tried to move an inch ahead, because it’s better to strike a match than the curse of darkness. And our young children are watching.
Hallgren: And one thing that we really tried to do the documentary was peel back the curtain on exactly that. Attorney Crump’s relationship with the media, oftentimes, it’s criticized. But when you see the scene, in Andrea Hills’ home, the way that Ben went in there and said, “This is painful. But if you don’t fight for your father, and you don’t go out there, and you keep saying his name, and it gets into the consciousness of American society, his name will be forgotten.” And his best friend is like, “Oh, we we played chess together.” Ben’s, like, “Say that! They don’t think about Black people playing chess, you know?” So it’s like you see in real-time, how Ben crafts the narrative around individuals who many people won’t see as a human being with a daughter and a best friend who plays chess, who had a favorite suit, who- all these things that we really, really see in the film. And that’s something that, that strategy is so well thought out. He’s so strategic in every single thing he does. Even if he comes across the way Kenya said, as you know, he’s a man of the people but the math that’s happening in Ben’s mind is extraordinary. And it’s storytelling. The way that we tell stories we know that that’s what ultimately gets to people’s heart.
During the Q & A portion, I was able to ask one question and it was for Attorney Crump. I asked him “As you’ve taken on more high-profile cases, you’ve become more well-known in the public consciousness. Do you feel like your visibility as a lawyer is more of a help or a hindrance to getting your clients the justice they are seeking?
Here’s his answer below.
Crump: I think they’re afraid now, to some extent. Trying to do what they have historically done to Black people when I’m on the case, because they know all the media follows a lot of what I do. So I think that’s helpful and in many ways, do I think that there’s backlash that they would love to get something on my clients? We try to be so careful with everything we say. I get mad when- whatever we do, and it’s not fair, it’s not just “Ben”…I get it. Whatever I do as an attorney, especially with Reverend Al, or Maxine Waters, a Black Attorney General- I know it reflects on Black attorneys, so I try to go out of my way to be extra prepared, extra sharp, because I don’t ever want to give them the satisfaction of trying to indict the entire Black race, based on something I do that is not just right on the level. We can’t afford to make mistakes and maybe that’s the pressure I put on myself, probably I don’t need to, but I do. I think, Thurgood Marshall, when you read about him, he did that as well. He knew that those judges saw Black lawyers- if he messed up, Black lawyers messed up. So I won’t allow anybody on my team- we can’t mess up.
Civil is now streaming on Netflix and had its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival this past wee.