Ava DuVernay’s superb documentary about America’s failing criminal justice system, “13th,” does an excellent job providing a high-level overview of race relations from Reconstruction to Trump. She masterfully ties together many threads and connects many dots, although DuVernay does admit that a limitation of her perspective is that she cannot do the deep dive that many subjects deserve.
In an interview with Film Comment, DuVernay listed a few documentaries that gave a feature-length treatment to a topic she had to brush over by necessity. One such recommendation was Dawn Porter’s “Gideon’s Army,” which she cited as a detailed look at how the system of plea bargains turns our prison system into a modern-day slavery. The film does shine a harsh light on how predatory penal practices puff up our incarcerated population, but it also does so much more.
“Gideon’s Army” is a testament to the selfless, tireless and often thankless work of America’s public defenders. These underpaid, overworked men and women are foot-soldiers of democracy as they fight on behalf of the accused that the state would rather strong-arm into a guilty plea. The laws make attempts to push back extremely difficult with mandatory minimum sentences that discourage defendants taking charges to trial. But these brave public defenders dare to climb uphill.
Porter might be the first filmmaker who makes an overloaded narrative enhance a film, which makes “Gideon’s Army” an obvious choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” We get to see how many plates the public defenders must keep spinning at a time – often 180 cases at once – in the fractured editing that never lets us spend too much time with a lawyer or client. Their defendants are both black and white, mostly young, and often times unsure of how the system works. The lawyers we observe sometimes have the herculean tasks of rebuilding trust in their office after a bad public defender bungled a case for their defendant.
We see their struggles along with the successes and failures that punctuate their continuous toiling. But after watching “Gideon’s Army,” it’s hard not to be incredibly thankful that there are public defenders who want to serve as more than a rubber stamp on the path from arrest to incarceration. It may come as cold comfort to the defenders themselves, yet this film turns viewers into supporters.