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.
The former Director of News Standards and Practices for ABC News and Vice President of Standards and Practices for A&E Networks spent three years in production.
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.”
Keeping the attorneys focused is Jonathan “Rap” Rapping and his nonprofit organization, Gideon’s Promise. He provides public defenders with support and fosters their professional development.
“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.
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There is no denying the wonderful and difficult work that Gideon’s Promise (SPDTC) does in training up attorneys to do the work that is before them and to do it well. This film depicts the hearts of these people. Bravo.
Outstanding Documentary! In the age of mass incarceration and private profiteering from human commodities in prison, I am hopeful that the train leading to the prison industrial complex is halted at times by committed and impassioned public defenders. As a former public defender and current law professor and faculty trainer at Gideon’s Promise, I am honored and humbled by the young public defenders featured in this film and the others that have come through this training center. Gideon’s Promise not only provides young public defenders with much needed trial skills, but it also trains them on how to be effective, client centered public defenders that recognize the humanity in every human being they represent. Congratulations to Dawn Porter for her hard work in bringing this issue to light, to HBO for accepting and showing this documentary, to Jonathan Rapping President/Founder of Gideon’s Promise and Ilham Aski Executive Director of Gideon’s Promise, Gideon’s Promise Staff, and to all of the Gideon’s promise trainers and public defenders who fight every day for equality, justice, and the humanity of poor people in this country. For more information, please visit http://www.gideonspromise.org.
Justice in this nation is and has always been far too much about money and not about “right”. The system grinds up and spews out poor defendants generally heedless of actual guilt. This film shows three extraordinary young attorneys who try daily to slow or stop that machine, who through skill and dedication and sheer will try to make the Courts actually look at defendants as human, not as charges or as inmate numbers. These defenders of the Bill of Rights are always underpaid and over worked certainly under appreciated and often under trained for the cases they are expected to handle. The documentary shows the consequences of the system and the toll it takes on these three young attorneys. Fortunately for these lawyers they have support and encouragement and training from Gideon’s Promise and its Founder Jonathan Rapping. A late scene when a young lawyer faces a professional cross roads and goes to Rapping for support is heart breaking as he details the sacrifices that must be made to survive in a rigged game. It is brutal that such sacrifice is demanded so that the promise of our Constitution can be upheld. Watch this movie and understand the horrible and tragic flaws in our system and appreciate those who every day struggle to correct them, one defendant at a time.
As a public defender who is part of Gideon’s Promise (formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center) I just want to recognize the staff and faculty of Gideon’s Promise. This organization trained Brandy, June, Travis, and more than 200 other public defenders across the South and continues to teach public defenders every year. This remarkable community is supported by a national volunteer faculty of committed public defenders who provide training and mentorship. Without this community many of us would not be able to sustain ourselves doing this difficult work. Please check the website http://www.gideonspromise.org to learn more about how you can follow the work of, and support, public defenders like these!