High-profile controversies surrounding free speech and racial equality have long plagued American history, but the fight over maintaining both freedoms is far from over. While many positive changes have occurred over the past 65 years, since the start of the civil rights movement, there is still a lot of work to be done. That process of defending the rights of all Americans is showcased in the new documentary, ‘Mighty Ira,’ which powerfully explores the storied career of former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Executive Director, Ira Glasser, who’s one of America’s leading unsung champions of civil rights and liberties.
First-time feature filmmaker, Nico Perrino co-directed and produced ‘Mighty Ira’ with Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby. The filmmaking trio explored how recent events in American history have evoked painful memories from the start of the civil rights movement.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education distributed the movie this weekend via the Angelika Film Center’s virtual cinema. The initial unveiling will be followed by a release on such streaming platforms as Amazon and iTunes on October 23, and then on Blu-ray and DVD on October 27.
‘Mighty Ira’ follows the career of Glasser, who was the leader of the ACLU for 23 years, between 1978 and 2001. During his time with the organization, he transformed it from a small operation that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a civil liberties juggernaut with offices in every state and a $30 million endowment. Amid high-profile controversies surrounding free speech and racial equality, and on the occasion of the ACLU’s centennial, Glasser reflects on his life at the forefront of defending the rights of all American
Perrino generously took the time recently to talk about co-directing and producing ‘Mighty Ira’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that production on ‘Mighty Ira’ began in 2017, after he met Glasser at a funeral, and they began talking about their mutual experiences of working on civil liberties cases. Perrino also mentioned that he, Maltby and Reese explored Glasser’s career by not only speaking to him at his home, but also looking through archival footage about his time at the ACLU, and interviewing people he knew and worked with during his tenure at the organization.
ShockYa (SY): Along with Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby, you directed the new documentary, ‘Mighty Ira.’ What inspired you three to helm the film, and how would you describe your helming style?
Nico Perrino (NP): The origin of ‘Mighty Ira’ goes back to January 2017. At that time, Ira was being written about a lot in the Village Voice by long-time writer, Nat Hentoff. He was an old school civil rights activist and civil libertarian, and was part of the generation that came up during the civil rights movement, and fought for civil rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech. He passed away in January 2017, and I attended his funeral.
Ira was also at the funeral…but I didn’t know who he was. I was introduced to him by a friend I was with at the funeral. Ira came up to me and said, “You do what I used to do.” I work for a company that does civil liberties work on college campuses. I looked at him and asked, “What did you used to do? Who are you?”
That’s when he introduced himself Ira Glasser, the former head of the (American) Civil Liberties Union. During his time there, he helped make the Civil Liberties Union a national powerhouse. It was on the verge of bankruptcy when he took over in 1978, and when he left in 2001, it had about $30 million in the bank, and offices in all 50 states and many territories.
I have a podcast (‘So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast’), so I said, “Ira, you have to come on my podcast, and we have to get talking.” He said, “I’ve been out of the game for many years, so I don’t know what I’ll remember. But we can have the conversation anyway.” Three hours later, there was still plenty to talk about…But that’s really the start of what led me on this journey to turn that podcast conversation into a documentary.
His stories are amazing. He was convinced to take his first job at the ACLU by Senator Bobby Kennedy. He also saw Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in baseball, which animated his interest in civil rights. He also lived through, and participated in, some of the greatest court cases that America saw in the second half of the 20th century. So he’s a phenomenal storyteller; his background and story are completely compelling, so I wanted to bring them to an audience.
SY: Once you decided to make the movie, what was your research process like into Ira’s life as one of America’s unsung champions of civil rights and liberties?
NP: We spent about 12 hours sitting down with him at his home. But the documentary isn’t just a talking head film; we also dug into a lot of archival footage, and we worked with NBC, CBS and ABC. We have 500 lines of archival in this film.
One of the things I didn’t know I was getting myself into as a first-time filmmaker was all the challenges that come with using archival footage; you need to get permission from all the archival houses, and you need to have lawyers review everything. It’s also very expensive; the 500 lines of archival was the bulk of the film’s footage, and it wasn’t an insignificant one.
But Ira’s story almost told itself, in a sense. I have binders in my closet in which I highlighted the story, and put everything together. Some of the biggest challenges in making this film were some of the things I didn’t expect, including the distribution, licensing and insurance.
SY: ‘Mighty Ira’ also features interviews with several people in Ira’s personal and professional life, including David Goldberger, Philippa Strum, Bryan Stevenson and Ben Stern. What was the process of deciding who you would feature in the documentary, and what you would discuss with them?
NP: A big through line in the film is the case that the ACLU took in 1977-78 in Skokie, Illinois involving Nazis who wanted to march through a town with many Holocaust survivors. It almost bankrupted the ACLU, but they took it because they wanted to vindicate the free speech rights that protect all of us as Americans.
In telling that story, I wanted to secure an interview with the lead attorney in the case from the ACLU’s Illinois affiliate, David Goldberger. Thankfully, we were able to fly out to Columbus, Ohio, as he was a professor at Ohio State at the time, and we sat down with him at the ACLU’s Ohio division. He’s a phenomenal storyteller.
He also recommend Philippa Strum, who works at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She also wrote a book called ‘When the Nazis Came to Skokie.’ Between Ira, David Goldberger and Philippa Strum, they were really our narrative throughline in telling the Skokie story.
Another big interview we have in the film is Bryan Stevenson, who’s a big civil rights activist, and is the subject of the film, ‘Just Mercy.’ HBO also came out with a documentary about Bryan. He’s the head of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s not easy to get down to Montgomery from Washington, D.C., but we were able to find a small plane, and make that interview happen. He appears in our documentary, and talks about a lot of the civil rights issues that are raised in the film.
We have about 12 interviewees in the film, including the 99-year-old Holocaust survivor who was Ira’s opponent in the Skokie case, Ben Stern. We flew out to Berkeley for Ira’s first meeting with Ben, and they had a Kumbaya moment after the battle in Skokie.
SY: Chris and Aaron also served as the editors on ‘Mighty Ira.’ What was the process of working with them to shape the overall arc of the film?
NP: The editing process for us was just going out there and putting the story together. We knew what the general arc was, and then we had to start whittling it down. We probably watched the film about 200 times, in one form or another. We had to figure out what to cut and change. It was just us in a room over the course of about a year, figuring things out.
We had a big whiteboard, on which we chronologically mapped out what the story was going to be…and I think the final product was about 30 minutes shorter than it was at the beginning. I think it’s more compelling, as a result.
SY: In addition to serving as a co-director, you also served as one of the producers on the movie. Why did you decide to also produce the documentary? How did you balance your helming and producing duties during the production?
NP: It was exhausting in many ways. It wasn’t just about telling the story; it was a combination of everything else that went into it. We were a three-person team, but when you watch the credits scroll on a big Hollywood film, you see the hundreds of people who worked on it.
As an indie filmmmaker, you really start to understand why (there are so many crew members). Between such jobss as the color grading, sound mixing, securing rights, getting insurance and licensing, setting up interviews and traveling, and balancing all the accounting, it’s a lot to do.
I’ve told my friends and family that if I knew all the work that goes into making a film ahead of time, it probably wouldn’t have happened. (Perrino laughs.) I told my wife that I don’t know if I’ll ever make another film again. My friends that have made films say, “You say that now, but you’ll be back in it.”
It was tough, but at the same time, it was rewarding. We’re telling the story of a man who’s representative of a generation that really secured the rights we have today…Ira says in the film, “How can you expect anyone to know this history unless you tell them?” That’s what we’re doing in this film.
SY: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released ‘Mighty Ira’ via the Angelika Film Center’s virtual cinema this weekend. How did you decide how you will distribute the film?
NP: The Coronavirus pandemic has definitely not made releasing a film easy. The last aspect of (production on) the film was putting together the score, and the composers and musicians were in California. This was in April, during the lockdown, so all of the musicians had to record independently, and then send in their music file. They had to do that, instead of everyone recording all together in person, like we all intended.
Our original intention for distribution was to do the film festival circuit. But it came to be June, and we had no idea when the Coronavirus would end, and it’s still with us. So a lot of the festivals went virtual. Since we didn’t know what a virtual festival would look like, we decided not to go that route.
We decided to instead release the film on streaming platforms. Angelika Film Center (has) released it (this weekend) as part of their virtual cinema program. So they’ll have it as an exclusive for two weeks, before it gets released on such streaming platforms as Amazon and iTunes on October 23. The following Tuesday, October 27, it will also be released on Blu-ray and DVD.