Filmmaker Dawn Porter’s Docs Combine Empathy and Education

On this day in 2016, the timely and important documentary, Trapped, was released in theaters. Trapped was directed and produced by the brilliant documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter. 

Dawn’s directorial debut came out with a bang with the hard-hitting and critically acclaimed documentary, Gideon’s Army. Documenting the difficult experiences of three public defenders working in the deep south, the film profoundly moved audiences and critics alike. Premiering at Sundance, Gideon’s Army received the Creative Promise Award from the festival. It was later nominated for an Emmy Award and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature. 

Not only did Gideon’s Army shed necessary light on the pitfalls of the American justice system, but it highlighted the humanity of the individual people who this system affects. In the words of FF2 Contributor Nicole Ackman, “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.”

Dawn seems to have found her niche in showing the personal in the political. Another one of her films, Trapped, gives an inside look into several abortion clinics in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, where more and more laws are being put in place to limit access to abortion. 

Trapped documents the ways in which these abortion centers, and the people running them, are personally affected by these TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. As FF2 Contributor Rachel Kastner explains in a review of Trapped, “This documentary shows the immense price that these clinic owners and nurses have to pay; the work isn’t easy, nor is it stable. The state governments are looking to shut them down. But the clinic owners’ dedication is absolutely remarkable and keeps the film feeling positive, even when dealing with these tough issues.”

In 2020, Dawn came out with John Lewis: Good Trouble, another documentary which highlights political issues through a personal story, a film which FF2 Contributor Nicole Ackman notes is “put together very well, balancing archival footage with modern interviews and video,” and “on a level above some of Porter’s previous work.”

This film tells the story of Congressman John Lewis, who dedicated over sixty years to political activism, from marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to fighting for voting rights in Congress and beyond. The film is both an archive of the political impact that John Lewis had on this country, but also a tender portrait of who he was as a man. 

This is shown in the interviews throughout the film; as Nicole Ackman says, “The interview subjects range from famous recognizable faces to those closest to Lewis. On one hand, Hillary Clinton and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offer their thoughts on Lewis’s career and how inspiring his work is. But even more important are interviews with Lewis’s sisters who shed light on what he was like as a child and his Chief of Staff Michael Collins who gives an idea of what his personality is.”

Dawn Porter is a filmmaker with a clear purpose: to highlight the most pressing political issues of our day, while also honoring the people behind these issues, whom she portrays with tenderness and admiration. Her films are not only well-crafted but educational, and not only educational but touching. There is always room for empathy in history, and thus there’s no doubt that Dawn’s films will be an important part of our lexicon for many years to come. 

© Julia Lasker (1/24/2023) FF2 Media


Read Nicole Ackman’s tribute to Dawn Porter here.

Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of Gideon’s Army here.

Read Nicole Ackman’s review of Gideon’s Army here.

Read Rachel Kastner’s review of Trapped here.

Read Nicole Ackman’s review of John Lewis: Good Trouble here.


Featured photo & Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Tags: Dawn Porter, documentary, Gideon's Army, Hillary Clinton, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Martin Luther King Jr., political documentary, political films, Trapped

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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