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Dawn Porter's Acclaimed Doc 'Gideon's Army' is Now Streaming on Netflix. Here's Why You Should See It

by Tambay A. Obenson
July 8, 2014 2:51 PM
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Public Defender Brandy Alexander in Dawn Porter's 'Gideon's Army'
Public Defender Brandy Alexander in Dawn Porter's 'Gideon's Army'

Director Dawn Porter's acclaimed feature "Gideon's Army," becomes available on Netflix's streaming platform today, July 8, 2014, and you're strongly encouraged to check it out.

The film  be summarized as follows: 3 young, idealistic public defenders in the Deep South - Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick - struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads to ensure justice is served for America’s forgotten poor.

There's a melancholy that runs through the entire documentary, as we get to know, quite intimately, 3 of the 15,000+ men and women public defenders in this country, as well as the many clients each represents. Despite the courtroom wins (obviously not all the time), the film paints a rather sobering portrait of the lives of these 3 young black women and man.

Over-worked (each representing dozens of clients at a single time), and underpaid, while also facing challenges maintaining steady, healthy relationships, and, in one particular case, a client who threatens to have his public defender killed if she doesn't win his case, as well as the constant urgency and anxiety from all the emotional peaks and valleys, one can't help but admire, although with some concern, the dedication and spunk with which they go about their seemingly unflattering, although vitally important jobs, representing primarily the poor and disenfranchised - speaking to the country's socioeconomic class divide.

So I can only applaud the recognition the film gives them, and believe it's very much warranted and even important, lest the world forget that they too need do be acknowledged and celebrated, especially with stats like this one from the New York Times, in 2010, which states that an estimated 80% of felony defendants in large states are too poor to hire their own lawyers.

And almost like superheroes, or saviors, public defenders carry much of that burden, which each tackles in their own individual way, all in the pursuit of upholding the ultimate importance and inviolability of human liberty.

But they are still very much human beings, with limits, so it should then make sense that a support group for public defenders exists; in fact, there's only one in the country, according to the film, which provides them with an opportunity to commiserate with one another, providing some respite from the challenging daily grind, but also to learn and be rejuvenated.

The minimalist, verite-style documentary is free of any embellishments - even a soundtrack, except for the occasional muted drone or beats. Director Porter simply documents the action, on camera, sans voiceover narration, or any visual gimmicks. She doesn't lead the audience nor insert herself into the picture, which I appreciated, as it could've lessened the impact audiences would experience of this rather cold, stark, all-consuming, even dangerous and potentially depressing world that the film's subjects exist in - both the public defenders and their primarily impoverished clients.

But the director wisely closes-out the film, countering the bleakness that consumes much of its running time, ending with a rousing, riveting, tear-inducing 15-minute finale, showcasing one of our public defenders (Brandy Alexander) at work in the courtroom, as she's able to, via her arguments, raise enough reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury, to win her client - a tattooed teen boy accused of armed robbery, facing a decade in prison without parole - "not guilty" verdicts on all counts.

It's a much-needed cathartic moment, especially for Ms Alexander, herself emotional, embracing her client and his family, suggesting a kind of familial recognition from both sides, which is understandable, given how much of herself she's willingly invested (at times acting as an ersatz therapist to her clients and their families, despite all the negatives associated with the work) in ensuring that this boy, who she believes has potential, is freed.

Moments like these must be necessary to provide some much needed balance, as well as reason and the requisite internal fire one would need to want to continue with the work.

"Gideon's Army" is a straightforward, eye-opening snapshot at the un-celebrated, but incredibly crucial work done by a relatively invisible population comprised of government employees.

As for the title, "Gideon's Army," it finds its roots in the 1963 landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, that led to the law which states that all defendants are guaranteed an attorney in criminal proceedings. Gideon was charged with breaking into a bar and stealing money and beer. He argued at his arraignment that he could not properly defend himself, and that a system that puts an unqualified person against a trained attorney is fundamentally unfair. On appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed. And the rest is history.

An HBO Documentary Films presentation, "Gideon's Army" is emotionally stirring, enlightening, and very much encouraged viewing. It's definitely a film you should check out on Netflix - just a few clicks away.

Trailer below:

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More: Dawn Porter, New On VOD, NetFlix

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  • Suz | July 13, 2014 1:49 PMReply

    Thanks for highlighting this doc. I'm very interested in doc's about law an social justice so I will definitely check this out.

  • Ol' Skool | July 9, 2014 10:32 AMReply


    Agreed, this doc is a must see for everyone b/c you never know. No one knows when they might find themselves in front of a judge addressing a "crime" they may or may not have committed. And, who saves for that raining day? Who has $20,000 - $50,000 dollars laying around in case they drink a little too much and consequently commits vehicular homicide?

    What about the spouse who claims spousal abuse which leads to gun play and death? Who saves enough money for that unforeseen circumstance?

    Well, my hand is raised. I was accused of Bank Robbery, which, of course I did not commit. My bond ($50,000) was enough to sap my little money, so, I needed a public defender. Now, the end of my ordeal (the outcome) speaks directly to this post.

    So again, one never knows when they may need to know when their best interests are being compromised by the "limitations" of a public defender.

  • Ol' Skool | July 9, 2014 11:56 AM

    ... additionally, I think its important to note (because, again, when you least expect it, you may be elected) lawyers are much like politicians. They may have good intentions but their first priority is their J-O-B. In other words, they do what they do as a means to put food on their table. Therefore, they are faced with, sometimes, most of the time, the unenviable task of compromising their values in order to maintain their employment (and thus keep food on their table).

    That said, I found out that my public defender would only be paid at the end of my case. The amount? $360.00! That's right. If the case continued 1-2-3-4 months or a year, she would only receive Three Hundred Sixty Dollars upon completion of my case. Also, there's little expense accounts for an investigative team. OH NO, CSI & NCIS will not be coming to the rescue. Consequently, its easy to surmise that it behooves "most" public defenders to get their clients over and done with, quick and in a hurry.

    Now, I wouldn't call the above a "railroad job" nor the dynamics of a kangaroo court, but... listen to a little more of my ordeal.

    In short, unbeknown to me, while I was out on bond, my attorney entered a guilty plea on my behalf. Oh lord, woe is me. I didn't know this until less than 24 hours prior to my sentencing date. That's right, I received a call telling me to be sure to come to court in the morning because it was about to be one (my incarceration).

    Well, needless to say, I was all fked up, but I put on my best face and my Sunday-go-to meetin' clothes in preparation to hear the judges' decision.

    The decision...

  • Dui | July 9, 2014 8:13 AMReply

    This really is a very important watch! It's a great doc!

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