Actress Kerry Washington: “Why we have the power to be heroes with whatever gifts we have”

By Debra Wallace

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All of these very human moments, make you realize that each of us in our own small section of our world, of our lives, we have the power to be heroes with whatever gifts we have. Because they’re just human beings. These extraordinary people that are saving our civil liberties and saving our asses every day, they’re just people. They’re our neighbors, they’re our cousins, they’re our friends.

While Kerry Washington is best known as an award-winning film and television actress, her tireless work as a crusader for equal rights is coming to the forefront.

Most recently, she produced The Fight, a riveting new documentary about a scrappy group of ACLU lawyers working to change the nation.

Washington, an acclaimed Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe-nominated actor, director, producer, and activist sees these lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), as modern-day “superheroes” and, as such, was eager to tell their eye-opening stories about massive efforts for social change in The Fight.

From Magnolia Pictures comes The Fight, which follows the story of an inspiring team of heroic ACLU lawyers. The movie debuts on July 31.

The 43-year-old Washington, best known for her role as Olivia Pope on the ABC drama Scandal, has also portrayed Anita Hill in the HBO political thriller Confirmation. She has received four Emmy nominations for her work, most recently for her role as the conflicted mother Mia in the Hulu drama Little Fires Everywhere.

In addition to acting in and serving as executive producer of Little Fires Everywhere, Washington also starred in an served as an executive producer on Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, which earned a nod for Outstanding Variety Special as well as Netflix’s American Son, which garnered a nomination for Outstanding Television Movie.

[Kerry Washington in a scene from Netflix’s American Son]

Her film credits include Ray, the Fantastic Four films, Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and the indie movie Mother and Child. Time magazine included Washington in its Time 100 list in 2014.

Through her company Simpson Street, Washington recently produced American Son, which was nominated for a Producer’s Guild of America Award and three NAACP Image Awards. Producing credits include the WGA Award-winning Confirmation, Scandal, Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times, and the upcoming Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine.

The Fight begins just days after the 2017 inauguration of President Donald Trump, when furious Americans gathered at airports across the country in protest of the Muslim ban. But it was the efforts of the ACLU, waging the fight in federal court, that turned the tide, staying the executive order on grounds of unconstitutionality.

This is the first time that the ACLU has granted access to not only its offices — but its battles — on the front lines of immigration rights, abortion rights, LGBT rights, and voting rights, which have become even more timely during this global health pandemic.

Filmmakers Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg (makers of the 2016 award-winning documentary, (Weiner), follows four seismically important cases and their magnetic attorneys in this inspiring, and important, story.

Recently, the filmmakers, the attorneys, and Washington spoke candidly at a press event about this passion project and how we can watch The Fight can take our ignited passions and make a difference in our own unique way.

Kerry, what is your view of the ACLU attorneys that made you feel compelled to make this movie and share its message?

Kerry Washington: I feel like they’re our real-life superheroes. They are our David to the Goliath of the higher-ups. They take on power structures to try to uphold the rights of all people, instead of prioritizing the rights of a few. And no matter who’s in power, they’ve consistently fought that battle for a hundred years. During that time, there’s never been a single president of the United States who has not been held accountable by the ACLU.

How have things changed since the film premiered — for better or for worse?

Kerry Washington: I think the fight remains. We are still in the trenches; we’re still in this battle. The film is a phenomenal example of the courage, and resilience, and tenacity, and intellect, and “badassery” that it requires to be in this fight. And I would say that we are still in it.

I wish that we weren’t still in the fight. I wish that all of our press about this film was post-script about a time that once was, but we’re still deeply, deeply, in the battle that is being revealed and exposed in this film. And also, I think in deep gratitude to our lawyers, no matter what administration we were facing at this moment, we would be in this battle anyway. Because the ACLU has done work to defend our civil liberties and our rights regardless of who is in power at any given time.

All of these very human moments, make you realize that each of us in our own small section of our world, of our lives, we have the power to be heroes with whatever gifts we have. Because they’re just human beings. These extraordinary people that are saving our civil liberties and saving our asses every day, they’re just people. They’re our neighbors, they’re our cousins, they’re our friends.

How did this movie change you?

Kerry Washington: I would say one of the ways it changed me is just that I now get to call these incredible human beings, both the filmmakers and the lawyers, my friends. So, I’m just super lucky. But I think I’ve always thought of the ACLU as really, for the most part, a faceless organization that does this heroic work up on a hill or in a building somewhere.

What else was involved?

Kerry Washington: Even though I’ve spent a lot of time even working with the organization, there’s a new intimacy that I think I feel with these lawyers because of how beautifully made this film is and because of how courageous all our lawyers were in sharing of themselves so intimately.

So, really feeling like I know these heroes in a human way has had a profound impact on me. One, because I really am so inspired by the work they do, but also when you really witness their humanity, having to hang their kids upside-down because they’re trying to work from home like Chase is doing. Now, all of us who have young kids at home in COVID relate to it. Or Lee not being able to charge his cellphone.

How do you hope it changes the audience that watches it?

Kerry Washington: All of these very human moments, make you realize that each of us in our own small section of our world, of our lives, we have the power to be heroes with whatever gifts we have. Because they’re just human beings. These extraordinary people that are saving our civil liberties and saving our asses every day, they’re just people. They’re our neighbors, they’re our cousins, they’re our friends.

How can we help if seeing the movie, and the issues it raises, makes us want to do so?

Kerry Washington: I think it begs the question, “what can I be doing more with my skills?” I may not be able to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court because I didn’t go to law school. But can I produce more work that centers on issues that are important to civil liberties? Am I somebody who bakes? Can I bake muffins and cookies and raise money for the ACLU? Can I dedicate my ability to edit, to help create content for organizations that are fighting for civil rights and civil liberties? Whoever you are, you can be part of the solution. And these heroes are really an example of that.

I think that a Kerry Washington bake sale would be a big hit, so I’m definitely going to buy a cake from you.

Kerry Washington: I’m getting really good with my slow cooker in COVID. I’m doing a lot of cooking these days.

What about your producing role entices you to make another film? And do you have any particular subjects in mind?

Kerry Washington: I think the team was the big draw for me. I also woke up the morning after the decision in New York regarding Trump’s Muslim ban and thought who is on the ground with the ACLU? Who is going to be filming these incredible, heroic lawyers at this moment? And then when I found out that it was the team who made Weiner, I was like, “Oh, this is a no-brainer. How do I get in bed with these guys?” Not literally, of course.

What else is involved?

Kerry Washington: It’s really the quality of people that you’re going to be working with because producing is not easy. You have to really be passionate about the work that you’re doing and the partners that you’re doing it with. For me, I have to. And so, I had such a deep belief, obviously in the subject matter and in the work that the ACLU is doing, but also in these really brilliant filmmakers to do what they do.

When you make a film like this are the rewards and satisfactions different than as an actor? Does this satisfy you in a different way?

Kerry Washington: I think for me when I first came to acting it was a lot about — this is when I was really young — I think I was drawn to acting because I was drawn to the opportunity to be somebody else and not myself. And as I’ve matured as an actor, I’ve come to learn that a lot of acting is about being willing to show more of myself rather than hide.

Please tell me more about this.

Kerry Washington: I really love documentary work because it is about other people, and it is about acknowledging that even in the most honest work I could create as an actor, I’m always trying to imitate documentary. I’m always trying to come close to what documentary film does, which is capture absolute truth on film. So the role of the actor is to approximate or to reach for the art of the documentary, and so it’s really a joy for me to be able to get to do the real thing.

Lee Gelernt is the deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project, and director of the project’s Access to the Court’s Program. He has argued many of the highest-profile challenges to the Trump Administration’s immigration policies, including its family separation practice.

Is there anything that you would recommend people do if they’re fired up after watching this film but unsure how they can make a difference?

[ACLU Attorney Lee Gelernt in The Fight]

Lee Gelernt: On a practical level you can go to and there are many different ways to get involved. There is no one way to do this. It could be a big thing, it could be a small thing. But public engagement is so critical because any sort of lasting structural change in the civil rights area has to come from the public and not just from the courts.

What are some examples?

Lee Gelernt: It could be anything from you’re tutoring a child, or donating to one cause, going down to the border and volunteering for a week, or you’re joining the rally, or you’re donating financially. And so there are lots of different ways, the ACLU’s website lays out some of them.

What is your view of the future?

Lee Gelernt: The one thing I always caution, especially down the road, is not to feel like the problems are so big, that you can’t solve all the problems, so there’s no reason to do anything. I think that’s a real danger when the problems get as big as they have is people think, ‘Well, these are just too big for me to get involved.” So, I believe we can’t get paralyzed by the thought that “I can’t solve all these problems so I’m not going to do anything.’” You need to just try to do one little thing, and if you can help one person, it will make a huge difference!

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