The soldiers of “Gideon’s Army,” Dawn Porter’s stirring debut docu, are public defenders — lawyers who dedicate themselves to representing the indigent, and regularly answering the question, “How can you defend those people?” Like the film itself, Porter’s handful of devoted, charismatic attorneys do a righteous job of reminding people that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, and that the criminal justice system seems otherwise disposed. Specialty release is a distinct possibility; festival word of mouth will be strong. But HBO will provide the kind of exposure the issue needs.
Porter includes several Georgia and Mississippi lawyers in “Gideon’s Army,” the name now given the Southern Public Defender Training Center, run by the inspiring Jonathan Rapping, who struggles to keep people working for him while gaining little in return besides enormous satisfaction.
But the director’s main focus is on Georgia-based defenders Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander, both of whom handle well over 100 cases at any given time, constantly wrestling with a system skewed against them. They don’t pretend that all their clients are angels; one, whom Alexander spent an enormous amount of time trying to free, plotted to kill her in court if she lost his case. But their mission is equal justice under the law. And as Porter quite clearly points out, that is an increasingly elusive goal.
The two cases at the center of the film both involve armed robbery, which in Georgia calls for a sentence ranging from 10 years without parole to life in prison. As Williams points out, most people in the system are pleading out; the aim isn’t to prove their innocence, but to reduce the severity of their sentences.
But in the South of “Gideon’s Army,” just being arrested can ruin a person’s life: June Hardwick, a Mississippi public defender (who leaves the service before the end of the film to run for political office), defends a skilled laborer who lost her home, job and belongings after being jailed, and in essence was stripped of her rights before even being tried. Porter doesn’t spell it all out; the inequities are obvious. That the law is unequally applied according to race and class is even more glaring.
There’s an on-the-fly feel to the pic that seems appropriate to the frantic pace of its subjects; the lensing by Chris Hilleke and Patrick Sheehan is often graceless, but as such achieves palpable immediacy. The cinematographers are certainly sensitive to the telling detail. A defendant’s leg, shaking as he awaits incarceration, is an eloquent aside; the sports trophies that adorn a dresser in the bedroom of Alexander’s client Demontes Wright — arrested at home, in a SWAT-team style invasion, for a pizza robbery he likely didn’t commit — indicates the devastating turn some lives can take.
Tech credits are quite good, especially co-writer Matthew Hamachek’s editing of material that must have been unwieldy, given the characters and circumstances; and Paul Brill’s score, which is used to emotionally precise effect.