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Sundance 2013 Review - 'Gideon's Army' Is A Necessary Look At The Work Done By The Unsung

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 20, 2013 at 7:08PM

Director Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army is 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.
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Public Defender Brandy Alexander in Dawn Porter's 'Gideon's Army'
HBO/Dawn Porte Public Defender Brandy Alexander in Dawn Porter's 'Gideon's Army'

Director Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army is 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 uncelebrated, 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.

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Dawn Porter, Gideon's Army


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