For more than two decades, Attorney Benjamin Crump has been at the forefront of advocating for Black Lives in America. His cases have included the families of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Andre Hill, and countless others. When the American Justice system has refused to be an equal playing field, Crump and his team have proceeded with civil charges so that the families could obtain some monetary justice where the criminal justice system failed to work for them. 

Now, with her latest Netflix documentary CivilBecoming filmmaker, Nadia Hallgren takes viewers through one year of Attorney Crump’s life. The documentary follows Crump, who has continually advocated for Black life and humanity, not just in cases of police brutality but also in fighting back against racist banking structures and businesses who placed profit over the protection of Black life. 

Ahead of the Civil premiere as the opening night selection of the American Black Film Festival, Shadow and Act spoke with Crump and director Hallgren about the documentary and why the film has never been more timely. 

“Ben is such a unique personality,” Hallgren shared when reflecting on her choice to include personal elements of Attorney Crump’s life. “We’ve seen a lot of documentaries about lawyers, but Ben is different. And that edge that he has, I thought, was really important, not just to understand who he is as a man and what drives him and his motivation, but how he became who he is. Ben learned so much from being an Omega and his relationship with his grandmother and mother. He talks about those things daily when he’s in a challenging situation or needs to make decisions. He draws from those experiences. We thought that was so important to share with the audience. Civil is a story about a man. It’s a story about America.”

Running toward Black pain to be a balm for grieving families and a devastated community has taken its toll on Attorney Crump. In Civil, he reveals he has a recurring nightmare that he’s running out of time. “I never realized how much I rubbed my forehead after meeting with the families and so forth,” Crump said. “Maybe that is some mechanism of dealing with the stress. I don’t think I can afford to dwell on how I feel personally because you have to stay focused on the mission. If you don’t, then we lose. I’m sure a therapist probably would say, this is not good, but I try to work harder because I do feel I’m running out of time. One of the things in the movie — I don’t know if it comes across, was three teenagers were killed in a matter of weeks — 15, 18, and 19 years old. And I’m like, ‘Man; they’re killing us too fast. We have to do more because I’m trying to prevent it.’ So that’s what I do.”

As the cinematographer and director, Hallgren and her team were by Attorney Crump’s side, bearing witnesses to the aftermath of some of the most painful times in a person’s life. “I’ve been working in film for 20 years,” Hallgren said. “Being in different situations all over the world, behind the camera filming, you know how it is. Then when you get back to your hotel, you sort of process what happened. We allowed ourselves to be emotional at times. Sometimes I’d be in the camera, and my eyes would be tearing. Ben has such a perspective and such a voice of reason. I learned a lot from him, and you see how he navigates dealing with people with grief. I learned a lot watching him do that.”

Keeping up with Attorney Crump’s schedule was also a new experience for Hallgren. “I came off of Becoming, working with Michelle Obama where her schedule is booked weeks in advance,” she explained. “She doesn’t do anything that’s not planned because of secret service and things like that. With Ben, his way of communicating was a text message with a screenshot and location, which meant, ‘If you’re in, this is where we’ll be.’ We would try to get wherever he was before him. We had a rental car when he got off the plane. We’d be like, ‘We’re here, Ben.’ So that’s how we figured out a good flow with him because he’s on the move. And every ticket was one-way because you never know when you would go next, and you just packed your bags to be open-ended. There were many times when we would go to a location, and he’d be like, ‘Can we drive four hours to another city?’ Because something happened, and we would go with it. We tagged along.’

With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, things often feel helpless as we constantly watch Black and brown people in this country face continued racism, microaggressions, violence, and outright death. It can cause a feeling of hopelessness and despair. But as Civil shows, there are many ways to help push the needle forward, even if it feels slow and hard-won. “We’re blessed,” Attorney Crump said. “And shame on us if we don’t use these blessings to try to help those who don’t have a voice.”

Civil premiered at American Black Film Festival on June 15, 2022. The film will debut on Netflix on Juneteenth. 

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.