Documentary Review: Gideon's Army (2013)

While it lingered for a while on my Netflix "My List", it was an excellent decision to finally watch "Gideon's Army", a 2013 award-winning documentary about the courage and importance of public defenders.

The title "Gideon's Army" comes from the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the high court "unanimously ruled that state courts are required (...) to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys."

Much like the impoverished defendants they are serving, whether innocent or guilty, the public defenders operate in the shadows of our imperfect society, with hyper-incarceration, and a severely clogged judicial system, where those who can't afford bail, linger for months, even years, awaiting trial, or worse suffer from permanent decay, and are often forced to plead guilty, whether or not they are. This film is about their lawyers.

The film's director is a former lawyer herself, Dawn Porter. She seems to have gotten into documentary filmmaking for the best reason: to tell important, under the surface, stories that aren't being told. The editing is superb, and even though visually, tedious paperwork, court proceedings and endless phone calls seem well tedious, smartly strung together in this film such scenes are anything but. Another strength is the film's location, in the South, an often underrepresented, or at least, misrepresented region, in a film which just tells it like it is, however harrowing that may be. But there are hopeful moments, because in this context, we must keep hope alive.

A good companion work, right now, is the excellent feature report in the latest New Yorker about a teen's three-year confined ordeal on Rikers Island in New York City, before charges against him of stealing a backpack were dropped, for lack of any case whatsoever.

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