July 1, 2013HBO
“How can you represent those people?” It is a question every public defender has heard. It often comes from people who are well meaning in their concerns about criminal justice but who harbor fundamental misperceptions about the work we do and the people we represent. Gideon’s Army, which will air on HBO July 1st, provides a definitive answer to that question.
The film follows three public defenders in the Deep South — Brandy, June, and Travis — who struggle against overwhelming odds to try to give the most vulnerable among us the representation that our Constitution guarantees but that our justice system is seldom capable of delivering. They are part of a growing movement being built by an organization called Gideon’s Promise (it changed its name from the Southern Public Defender Training Center in 2013), to raise the standard of representation for poor people across the South.
While the film touches on the support Gideon’s Promise provides its lawyers, its focus is on the crisis Gideon’s Promise seeks to address. It is told through the eyes of its three protagonists, and so allows us to see the human connection to this overwhelming crisis. It follows the three attractive and sympathetic young people through their daily routines as they struggle, like all public defenders, to live up to the Sisyphean task of upholding the democratic ideals of our Constitution within the limits of severely limited resources and little public support. We see them struggling to pay their bills, facing personal conflicts, and doubting their ability to succeed. And yet they carry on as very few of us could manage to do.
Through her powerful storytelling, Director/Producer Dawn Porter is able to show these young people, so often despised, as the heroes they really are. She is able not only to redefine the way we see public defenders, but also dismantle the stereotypes about the people we represent. Through decades of media images and news accounts we have learned to see the world as “us” versus “them.” The “them” are the demonized “other” — usually poor and of color who the media has taught us to fear and despise. By implication we learn to distrust and disdain those who defend them; we see defenders as incompetent at best, complicit in the criminal’s acts at worst.
Porter manages brilliantly to reverse these images and attitudes, allowing us to see each of the defendants not as demons but as basically decent human beings caught in a society, and a system, which leaves them largely helpless and vulnerable, often through little fault of their own. They have flaws and have made mistakes, but they are, like the lawyers who defend them, deserving of our sympathy and even respect. The documentary makes us ask whether we want to be a society that gives people a second chance or one that deprives them of every human dignity and opportunity. And most importantly perhaps, it recasts the public defender as the hero of the criminal justice system. As we watch this absorbing documentary, we come to see this system as hopelessly broken and in crisis. In portraying public defenders as heroes, the film gives a heartfelt answer to the question, “How can you defend these people?”
But by showcasing the enormous sacrifices these young heroes make, it also becomes a cry for reform of a dysfunctional system that places unimaginable burdens on those caught in its grip and those struggling to repair it, one case at a time. ”What can we do about this crisis?” the film asks, and perhaps most inspiringly it points to answers. For, as members of the aptly-named Gideon’s Promise, these lawyers are part of a movement to force the system to live up to its highest ideals. While Porter elects to tell her story through three public defenders, their ability to persevere comes from their participation in this community that has grown to include over 200 public defenders across the South. While each is trained through Gideon’s Promise, more significantly they are supported and inspired to continue to overcome the odds that drive so many to leave or to accept the status quo.
As a member of the Gideon’s Promise faculty, I work with lawyers like Brandy, June, and Travis every day. I know how desperately they need the support of this movement. I see the power each has, individually, to give poor people justice, and collectively, to transform America’s courtrooms. It is Porter’s apt direction and narrative sense that works to inspire us to support these lawyers and especially this movement. So many documentaries point out the terrible problems of our world, but few point to solutions. This one does. Kudos to Porter and the lawyers and the movement she has managed to portray so powerfully. Every lawyer and every citizen should see this film.