Gideon’s Army, then and now

Here we take a closer look at an incredible documentary, reviewed when it was originally released by FF2’s Jan Huttner in 2014. Check out that review here!

Gideon’s Army is a hard-hitting documentary about the plight of public defenders in America and the clients that they represent. While not necessarily groundbreaking film work, it’s a much needed piece to reveal what the people who work this largely thankless job go through daily and it exposes many of the flaws of the American justice system. (NBA: 4/5) 

Review by FF2 Associate Nicole Ackman

Gideon’s Army gets its title from the 1963 court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, which clarified that states must provide an attorney to defendants who cannot afford one themselves. This case essentially created the need for public defenders who would take these difficult and often challenging cases. The film follows a handful of public defenders in the American South as they handle large numbers of cases, often encountering issues within the legal system that result in the imprisonment of innocent people. 

Brandy Alexander, June Hardwick, and Travis Williams are just three examples of the sort of people who do this work, but seeing how they struggle logistically and emotionally with their cases is enlightening. It’s a job that many lawyers do not last in because of the low pay (especially considering many have student debt) and the difficult outcomes they often face. We see the effects on their health and personal relationships due to their workload and the stressful nature of their job. 

Director Dawn Porter was a lawyer herself before she became a filmmaker and her respect for the people who hold the difficult job of a public defender shines through in the documentary. Porter mixes footage of the three with interviews with their clients and their clients’ family members, along with text cards providing more context. We get to see the court proceedings of some of the cases that we’ve learned about and get an idea of what it is like to be there with these people in the courtroom. 

Gideon’s Army excels at focusing on the personal moments rather than dry facts. Williams shares his plans to get a tattoo on his back with the last name of every case that he loses. Alexander has to scrounge together $3 worth of change to pay for her gas while waiting for her next paycheck. Hardwick worries about becoming cynical and burnt out. One of the client’s mothers discusses how it felt to have the police burst into her home and arrest her teenage son with unnecessary violence. 

The film won the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize in 2014 and the Candescent Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2013. It may not be the strongest film technically, but the subject matter speaks for itself. With everything happening in the world right now, it’s a great time to check out Gideon’s Army if you missed it when it was released in 2013. It sheds light on not just these the people who end up (rightfully or wrongfully) accused of crimes, but also the people who are tasked with defending them who often go unthought of. 

© Nicole Ackman (6/21/20) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: Trilogy Films

Q: Does Gideon’s Army pass the Bechdel Test? 

Yes!

Female Public Defenders meet with female defendants and the female family members of their various clients.

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Contributor based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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