Ben Crump at work: a tight focus on justice

Photos by Charles Hallman (l-r) Ben Crump , Nadia Hallgren

The legal work of famed civil rights lawyer Ben Crump is chronicled in “Civil,” a nearly two-hour documentary that premiered this summer on Netflix. The documentary presents a behind-the-scenes look at how Crump works with his clients as they seek justice in the form of civil liability suits filed against the particular city and its police department. 

“Civil” followed Crump for a few years as he represented four Black families, all of whom lost a loved one at the hands of police: Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daunte Wright. The last two took place in Minneapolis.

“It was unprecedented” access that Crump provided her and her crew, director Nadia Hallgren told the MSR after “Civil” was screened by Black journalists at the 2022 NABJ Convention in Las Vegas in August. The award-winning filmmaker added that her film focused on the attorney in 2020 and 2021.

Hallgren and Crump both spoke to the crowded room after the film’s screening. The attorney stated that the stories of Black killings by police wouldn’t be fully exposed and covered if it wasn’t for Black journalists. “Whether we get justice or not is gonna be on us,” he explained. “We’re going to get justice.”

Viewers of “Civil” will learn that Crump has since law school been dedicated to Black life, and this was the main reason why he and his law practice partner chose civil law rather than criminal law. 

We also learn how much he is a devoted family man as a married father of a young daughter. It is also revealed that his hero was Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice. 

“You’re a counselor,” said Crump of his work. “You’re just trying to make America live up to the Declaration of Independence.” He applied what he learned from Marshall—“You gotta be focused on the mission. You got to be focused on the mission.  Because if you lose your focus, then more injustice is happening.’   

Crump agreed to be filmed when Kenya Barris (“black-ish”) approached him with the project. Hallgren agreed to do it shortly after her last project, “Becoming” (2020), on former First Lady Michelle Obama, debuted on Netflix. “My background is as a cinematographer,” she noted. Her previous work includes “Black and Missing” (2021) and “She’s the Ticket” (2017).

Added Crump, “It was a hard decision. I’ve made a choice, but I knew in this documentary it was going to expose my family. I’m thankful to Nadia because I literally said I don’t want to expose my family too much, and she was very sensitive to that.”

Hallgren said she at all times stayed true to Crump’s expectation, but she also wanted to give viewers a real glimpse of what Crump does away from the cameras. “We don’t hear a lot of those stories, but it could be [only] a news headline for a day and then people forget about it.[Crump] just wanted to make sure we went deeper.

“One of the most powerful moments for me was when Ben walked into the living room of these families, and just the way that he managed a situation where you have a grieving family,” Hallgren said.

Both Crump and Hallgren said they are proud of “Civil.” “We had the film down to 11 hours” of footage, recalled the filmmaker. “As we had enough footage to start editing, we just started editing.” 

“Hopefully it encourages other Black filmmakers to go out and tell stories,” Crump said.

Hallgren told the MSR, “I just really hope people can watch it and share it, share it with others. I think it’s an important piece of history.”