2022-07-06

At the beginning of “Civil” — a documentary about the civil-rights attorney Ben Crump — a phone call from Tera Brown, a cousin of George Floyd, comes into Crump’s office.

Crump listens compassionately as Brown relates the 2020 murder of her cousin by a Minneapolis police officer. Crump gently offers her some advice about next steps, then rests his head in his hands. The image of Crump holding his own head, and of Crump rubbing his eyes, is repeated throughout “Civil.” It is the weary physical response to ongoing injustice and to a schedule that keeps the lawyer on planes and on his smartphone, pursuing lawsuits intended to make police departments and municipalities pay financially — and the media and the court of public opinion pay heed.

Most viewers will likely recognize Crump as a high-profile legal representative for family members not just of Floyd but of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and Andre Hill, too, to name some of his clients’ loved ones who have been killed during encounters with the police.

The director Nadia Hallgren filmed Crump over a year during 2020 and 2021, and her portrait has instances of tag-along intimacy. The phone calls to Crump’s wife, Genae, and daughter, Brooklyn, as well as his check-ins with his mother, Helen, provide ballast amid the upheaval. And the biographical details about the college, law school and fraternity that shaped Crump tease his roots in Black communities.

Yet “Civi” yields fewer insights than hoped. At times, the neat documentary feels nearly as tailored as Crump’s suits. (Perhaps this is what happens when verité-style filmmaking follows such a camera-ready subject?) Given Crump’s vital role in momentous litigation, “Civil” may be crucial viewing — but it’s not always revealing.

Civil: Ben Crump

Rated PG-13 for strong language and images of violence. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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