The film can 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 for their well-being) 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 (especially in what has come to be called the age of Trump), 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 beat. 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) 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. In a country in which the rich and powerful are seemingly served by a different set of laws than the rest of us, and a new president that unapologetically uses the power of the office he holds in attempts to circumvent the law of the land, “Gideon’s Army” still remains very much relevant, 4 years since its initial release; a sobering and necessary reminder of just how unbalanced the scales of justice are, but also offering some hope in the form of the “army” of public defenders who work vigilantly in the pursuit of justice for clients that society has essentially thrown away.
The title, “Gideon’s Army,” 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.
A film that could serve as yet another companion piece to Ava DuVernay’s searing, Oscar-nominated “13th,” “Gideon’s Army” is emotionally stirring, enlightening, and very much encouraged viewing. It’s available on various home video formats so look for it.