AFI Docs Review: “Gideon’s Army”

Dawn Porter’s film looks at the unglamorous and unlucrative careers of public defenders in the South.

By: Douglas Bair

There are no fancy corner offices to be found in Dawn Porter’s documentary about the career paths of public defenders in the South. With a mission that mostly focuses on lessening the penalty for the majority of cases that come across their desks (these lawyers see a 90-to-95-percent guilty plea rate), these attorneys operate in a subset of the legal system that doesn’t offer the glitz of TV courtrooms.

While the cases and clients in the film are somewhat stereotypical for a documentary about the many problems within the US legal system, there are scenes throughout that create a compelling narrative arc. Rather than focusing solely on the clients, Porter hones in to examine the lives of lawyers who work for paychecks that barely make a dent in their law school loans.

One scene features a room full of public defenders at a support group meeting—much like one their clients would be court-ordered to attend—where frustrations about innocent clients, moral obligations, and personal lives all emerge as topics that bring these lawyers to the verge of tears.

The obvious question is what motivates them to continue down this career path, and Porter offers a lesson in the history of public defenders dating back to the civil rights movement—the ones who fought hard in court to ensure justice was served for individuals sent to jail for sitting at the diner counter or the front of the bus.

Porter shows how lawyers head into court prepared for the uphill battle ahead and dig through details to try to prove their clients’ innocence. One scene finds a lawyer using an orthodontist as a witness to pinpoint a timeline of exactly when her client had braces, proving he longer fit the description of the accused. When they have to fight against profiling of their clients, the smallest detail can prevent a guilty verdict.

There are enough of these powerful moments to carry each lawyer’s narrative arc through the film and elevate it above a typical legal documentary. It would be no surprise if future public defenders look back to this film and see their predecessors as mentors, which is why these lawyers’ stories deserve their place in the history books.

Playing June 21, 5 PM, at the National Portrait Gallery, and June 22, 11 AM, at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.