Just like ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble,’ the story of Judge Harry Pregerson should inspire us all to continue fighting the good fight
The past four years have been quite the doozy! Individuals (and America, in general) have shown their true colors for the entire world to see — from doing the unconscionable and separating migrant families at the border to the Muslim ban and the disparities in treatment of BLM protestors versus that of the terrorists who stormed the Capitol — the world, and America in particular, can use a little more empathy and caring for their fellow man — no matter the race, gender, religious background, etc. We could all take a page from the life story of 9th Circuit Court Judge Harry Pregerson. Two-time Academy Award®-winning director, writer, producer Terry Sanders shines a light on the man who put his conscious and scruples over “abstract legalities” in his latest documentary “9th Circuit Cowboy.”
The film starts with his early life (born in the Ukraine and immigrating to the U.S. as a young child) and giving us a glimpse of the childhood that influenced his outlook on life and love for his fellow man — having grown up in a truly multi-cultural neighborhood in L.A. As he got older and suffered his own injustices as a Jewish man in the 1930s and 40s, this solidified his urge to fight for the underdog/minorities/mistreated. His experience while serving as a Marine during WWII is what first turned him into a hero and etched on his mind and heart the motto of “leave no man behind.” These are the words that would shape both his personal and professional life for years to come and turn him into the type of figure that should be admired and emulated — and it is also what became the sticking point for his critics who referred to him as a “bleeding heart liberal.” Though I’ve never quite understood how caring about the well-being of your fellow man, no matter their situation, could be seen as a bad thing…but I digress.
Sander’s opens the film at Pregerson’s memorial service after his passing in 2017 and gives us a glimpse of the man through the eyes and words of those who knew him best — family, friends and co-workers. Just listening to the way they describe this man, his convictions (he may be the only federal judge to have halted construction of an interstate expressway because it would have disproportionately uprooted poor people — which is definitely a thing, for more on this check out PBS’s documentary “Driving While Black”) and accomplishments (1st Jewish student body president at UCLA) is how we all hope others will refer to us after our passing. He was a dedicated humanitarian (he fought tirelessly for the well-being and rights of veterans and minorities) and feminist who railed against oppression and hypocrisy and fought until his dying day — and as a white male, that’s saying a lot. Serving in the judiciary over 50 years, Pregerson leaves behind a legacy and body of work that should inspire and challenge us all to be better.
Through old photos, family/friend antecdotes, home video and even the words of Pregerson himself, “9th Circuit Cowboy” does a fine job of giving viewers just a small glimpse of the man who fought to make the world a more just and equitable place and showed us everyone is important. Although the film didn’t dive too heavily into any of the individual cases he ruled on as an “activist judge” and mainly stayed surface level (as an attorney, I would’ve really appreciated that, but it would’ve made for a somewhat different film), it did a good job of giving us a glimpse of this extraordinary man without feeling too much just like a “praise piece” that very well could’ve been shown at the memorial service itself. And I loved the closing words of the film in particular, “I feel good about the future of our country because women are going to take over and run it!” In the end, Terry Sanders delivers a timely and poignant look at an American hero who left us with important words to live by, “FIGHT” — a word that echoes even louder in this season that is upon us where there is much work to be done to heal and better our country.
“9th Circuit Cowboy” is coming to Vimeo on Demand and Amazon on Jan. 26th.