One of 2013’s Sundance Film Festival favorites was Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. His directorial debut chronicles the final days of Oscar Grant III, a young black male profiled and murdered by a BART policeman in 2009 at an Oakland train station.
Dawn Porter hasn’t seen the film but remembers watching Coogler garner top honors from the front row. Her directorial debut, Gideon’s Army, earned this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition Editing Award. “It was a really special year to be there,” recalls Porter.
Gideon’s Army, slated to premiere Jul. 1 on HBO, stems from a 50-year-old Supreme Court ruling those prosecuted have the right to an attorney. The docudrama traces three exceptional Southern black public defenders’ daily challenges.
They each represent people who can’t afford legal representation while also juggling long hours, staggering student loan debt and overwhelming workloads. “It’s important to show those kinds of successes. They’re really good role models for us. They’re excellent examples for participating in the criminal justice system” says Porter.
Porter faced the dilemma of whether reports often framed from prosecutors’ perspectives could influence the general public’s understanding of the justice system. “You start to see really quickly what makes a compelling story. It’s a different kind of engagement when you care about a character or a person,” says Porter.
In and out of court, each public defender is empathetic and compassionate regardless of the client. “You need to be able to relate to people. It’s a great place. We do great work, but it makes for burnout,” says featured attorney Brandy Alexander.
Adds Porter, “Not everybody’s trying to have a BMW. It’s extremely important to have people of color highlight the racism and injustice they face. We celebrate people who’ve ‘made it.’ It’s important to have somebody be them and look like them trying to understand their story.”
“They work in environments that have come to accept incredibly low standards of justice for poor people. They face pressures to give into the status quo. They can change systems. It’s about time that public defenders are shown as heroes,” says Rapping.
Porter initially encountered skepticism and resistance from both courts and attorneys. The Georgetown University Law Center alumnae, once oblivious to public defenders’ plights, was deemed a great listener unanimously by the film’s subjects.
“I had their trust. They’re trying to do their best to do something hard. You almost forget it’s about public defenders. You get involved in their struggle. I didn’t want to let them down,” says Porter.
Rapping concurs. “[Dawn’s] a true believer. She has a great way of blending in. You don’t even realize the cameras are there. Her style captures an open, honest story,” says Rapping
Gideon’s Army captures another untold legacy of members of historically disenfranchised groups whose efforts transform cultures and communities. “These public defenders are today’s Civil Rights Movement. They’re on the front line to really make justice a reality for the poor and people of color. If we’re going to get out of that, it will be because of these public defenders,” he says.
Alexander agrees. “Public defenders are public servants like firefighters and teachers. People think we’re bad people who represent bad people. I hope it causes a ripple in the justice system,” says Alexander.
Gideon’s Army premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.