Civil: Ben Crump, a documentary directed by Nadia Hallgren, focuses on a year in the life of civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. It follows several of his cases from 2020 to 2021, especially focusing on the civil litigation against the City of Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd, and is in part biographical, tracking Crump’s journey from the projects in North Carolina through law school. Civil goes a long way to demonstrate both the breadth of his legal practice—the big names are people killed by police on camera, but he also deals with things like bank discrimination and the intersection of environmental and labor injustice—and the limits to justice that can be found in civil litigation. In attempting to explain Crump’s trajectory and his position in the Black liberation movement, Civil confronts tension between shining light on his work and general aggrandizement. While informative and worth watching, it’s much more of a self-authored back-pat than a critical exploration of a career or the justice system at large. Still, it’s a powerful reminder of the failures of American policing specifically and society in general, one that offers no easy answers and only temporary victories.
The Floyd wrongful death lawsuit is Civil’s main throughline, around which other civil suits for discrimination and wrongful death are organized. “I want to make it financially unsustainable for [police] to continue to kill Black people unjustly,” Crump says.
No less than ten other cases are documented around the country. We meet the loved ones of Breonna Taylor (killed in her apartment while police were serving a no-knock warrant at the wrong address), Angelo Crooms and Sincere Pierce (16 and 18 when they were killed by police), Tafara Williams (shot by police while her boyfriend Marcellis Stinnette was killed; their 7-month-old was in the car with them), Fred Cox Jr. (killed by a sheriff while they were both attending a funeral) and Andre Hill (killed by police leaving his friend’s house). We meet families poisoned from working with Monsanto chemicals on their farms or from the Gopher Battery Plant. On the way to these cases, Crump talks about how he was inspired by people like his grandmother (the matriarch of a family familiar with the wrong side of the justice system) and Thurgood Marshall (who told aspiring Black lawyers “not to argue what is legal, but to argue what is right”), how he and his law partner began as “rent lawyers” doing anything that would pay the rent, and using personal injury and wrongful death work to fund civil rights litigation.
The environmental racism cases are especially meaningful. It’s not as easy to understand as police killing unarmed people, but hiring an entirely Black, mostly formerly incarcerated workforce at $11.63/hour to handle dangerous chemicals, sending them home covered in lead dust and having their kids end up with elevated lead levels in their blood is downright malicious. These, discrimination in farm chemical training and bank discrimination cases are not glamorous or violently morbid, but they represent the everyday enforcement of an apartheid system.
Crump’s partners think he’s done enough civil rights cases; other work is more lucrative, and they’re concerned about his safety (he deals with death threats and conservative media lambasting), mental health and relationship with his family (rendered physically distant by travel, but still loving). Crump doesn’t sleep much. He’s on the road a lot, and this is certainly tiring work. While Civil doesn’t show much in-court footage aside from the mock trial for Breonna Taylor’s case, it focuses on the grief of the families. You can feel it. Ben Crump feels a responsibility to help families get restitution from the governments, banks and other corporations that discriminate against and hurt Black people. But he’s no revolutionary. He’s a trial lawyer.
While no dollar amount is going to bring these people’s loved ones back, it can be a step toward justice. Financial damages are the least they’re owed. Crump, talking to Tezlyn Figaro, argues that the money could be the seed of generational wealth for the families, especially knowing there’s no promise of a criminal case. This reflects a worldview that doesn’t stop, at least on camera, to confront the capitalist system which encourages violent policing and the maintenance of a racialized, though not monoracial, underclass. Crump operates within the system from a position that can push reform, but not one which calls for a wholesale undoing of the capitalist state—though he’s at least making that world more livable for some who have suffered directly at its hands. That’s admirable; we all must live in the world as it is, not as we wish it were.
On the other hand, while the labor of Crump, his law firm associates and their co-litigators is valuable, I wonder what their takeaway is. If families felt fleeced, his work would dry up, but I still wonder why that side of things is left out of the documentary. Crump says that the police brutality division is the least profitable of his firm. We’re later told he sued banks for over $200 million for discrimination over the time period the document covers, so it could certainly be true.
The record-setting $27 million settlement and guilty murder and manslaughter verdicts for Derek Chauvin represent a sort of progress, but they highlight one problem and ignore another. Daunte Wright’s killing in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis took place days after the settlement. While the City of Minneapolis was financially on the hook for the life of one Black citizen thanks to a killer cop, another life was being taken. Evidently, $27 million isn’t quite cost prohibitive enough to change how law enforcement interacts with people. (Wright’s family eventually settled for $15 million, and his killer went to jail for 16 months including time served.)
Civil highlights that Black people have been left out of or prevented from accomplishing the heights of the mythic American dream, something Crump appeals to with his rhetoric and his ever-present shining bald eagle lapel pin. In his earnest repetition of American ideals, Crump cloaks civil rights advocacy in America’s own righteous self-image, even as he explicitly calls out racism. His success feels like progress, though qualified immunity ensures that individual police and their departments aren’t held financially liable for these killings—the city itself is; it’s an entirely separate budget line item. As long as municipal, regional, state and federal funds are diverted from education and social welfare and given to police without direct recourse for police misconduct or murder, this will continue. Civil doesn’t address this. And whatever his beliefs, Crump believes himself required by his position to discourage destruction of property. Yet, there is little evidence that civil or legislative recourse would come without physically manifested social pressure.
While Civil has the good moral sense to show Crump attending protests and rallies, and other activists and collaborating attorneys move through the background and foreground, the biographical focus limits the documentary’s scope—it doesn’t have the space or inclination to highlight other avenues of resistance. Still, Civil is a helpful reminder that one man can’t be the solution to racist police violence, even as a successful spokesperson for the movement to end that violence. It’s a helpful reminder that police killing Black folks devastates whole communities. It’s a helpful reminder that discrimination extends far beyond that; even limited to Crump’s work around litigation, a second documentary could focus on the treatment of Black farmers and industrial laborers. His valiant efforts have led to successes that I would never dare diminish, but Crump and the rest of us would do well to remember that the long-term solutions to these persistent problems may require more than high-settlement lawsuits.
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Release Date: June 17, 2022 (Netflix)
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.