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Gideon's Army
Producer: Julie Goldman
95 minutes

Gideon's Army

GIDEON’S ARMY follows the personal stories of Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South challenging the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Backed by mentor Jonathan “Rap” Rapping, a charismatic leader who heads the Southern Public Defender Training Center (now known as Gideon’s Promise) they struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads so common that even the most committed often give up in their first year. Nearly 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling Gideon vs. Wainwright that established the right to counsel, can these courageous lawyers revolutionize the way America thinks about indigent defense and make “justice for all” a reality?

In 1963 the Supreme Court decided the landmark case Gideon vs. Wainwright. The holding was simple: in felony cases people who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided one. Most states responded to the ruling by creating offices for public defenders to defend poor people charged with serious crimes. But Gideon’s promise has not been fulfilled. Too many public defenders have become little more than speed bumps on an indigent’s journey to conviction.

Most concerning is this: Every year hundreds of innocent indigents are swept away in the crushing tide of a system strained to the breaking point. As it stands today, innocents may spend decades in jail, some who are guilty are not brought to justice, and the public is rapidly losing faith in the fairness and competency of the criminal justice system. While the moral implications are staggering, this travesty of justice occurs against the backdrop of an unprecedented economic climate where an economically strapped nation can ill afford to spend needless dollars imprisoning the innocent.

The problem is particularly acute in the South. Newly minted lawyers fresh out of school are handed case files and a few words of encouragement and then most are left to fend for themselves. With little or no training, some make their way, but many do not. Low pay, long hours, and an endless parade of clients can overwhelm even the most idealistic practitioner over time.

In addition to these professional challenges, low salaries and high student loan debt cause a high degree of stress to them and other public defenders. According to the US Department of Justice, “student loan debt is consistently sited as the overwhelming reason why attorneys decline or leave positions as prosecutors and public defenders.” Many drop out of the system altogether, joining their counterparts with more resources and higher salaries at commercial law firms.

Defendants in the South face some of the steepest potential sentences in the country. The Institute for Southern Studies explains in Doing time in the South that “tough on crime” criminal justice policies like mandatory minimum sentences and "three strikes you're out" laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have led to a quadrupling of the country's prison population since 1980, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase.

This combination of severely under-resourced public defenders, with some of the most punitive laws in the nation, has led Southern Public Defender Training Center founder Jonathan Rapping to call the situation in the Deep South “the civil rights issue of our time.”

An official selection in the prestigious U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, GIDEON’S ARMY was awarded the editing prize at the festival. The film premiered on HBO summer 2013.
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“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." - Variety
"In this study of exceptional grace under extreme pressure, a trio of public defenders makes considerable personal sacrifices to shield their indigent clients from the full weight of the judicial system." - Deadline Hollywood
"Long hours, low pay, and criminal clients are commonplace for public defenders Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick, young African American lawyers profiled in this eye-opening documentary… Good way to begin discussions about the legal system. Recommended for young adults readers." - Candace Smith, Booklist Online
"A sober and quietly devastating documentary, this is Highly Recommended… The inequities of America's justice system are highlighted in Dawn Porter's excellent HBO-aired documentary GIDEON'S ARMY, which focuses on the work of public defenders who toil relentlessly on behalf of clients unable to afford legal counsel." - F. Swietek, Video Librarian Magazine
"GIDEON'S ARMY is the most honest portrayal of American public defenders to date. But it’s what remains unsaid that offers the most compelling argument for criminal-justice system reform. Public defenders are hard-working and well-educated. If life is hard for them, if there aren’t changes to the system, how much hope can their clients have?" - R.L. Nave, Jackson Free Press
"HBO's most illuminating crime drama since THE WIRE…" - Village Voice
"…essential… gripping and beautiful…" - Esquire Magazine
"Eye-opening…" - The Hollywood Reporter
"Highly Recommended. Dawn Porter’s powerful and heart-wrenching feature-length documentary looks at the trials and tribulations of public defenders... Grossly overloaded with court cases, Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick represent but three of the 15,000 public defenders assigned to serve millions of clients." - Monique Threatt, EMRO
Porter is one of our most empathic nonfiction storytellers. Her debut movingly captures the warrior spirit of three indefatigable public defenders in Georgia as they weather heartbreaking losses and narrow victories, dejected but not yet broken. - Matthew Eng, Tribeca News
"Gideon’s Army would pair exceptionally well with scholarship on the inequities of the criminal justice system." - Matthew W. Hughey, Films for the Feminist Classroom

• Best Editing, Sundance Film Festival
• Knight Grand Jury Prize, Miami International Film Festival
• Award Audience (Non-Fiction), Miami International Film Festival
• Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize
• Silver Gavel Award for Media and the Arts, American Bar Association
• Outstanding Informational Programming, EMMY Nomination
• Best Director, Sam Francisco Documentary Festival
• New York Times Critics Pick
• 2015 ALA Notable Videos for Adults List
• 2014 Video Librarian Magazine Best Documentaries List
• World Premiere, Sundance Film Festival
• ACLU National Staff Conference
• Miami International Film Festival
• Harvard University Law School
• San Francisco Justice Summit
• American Constitution Society
• ACLU of Idaho
• ACLU of Utah
• Southern Coalition for Social Justice
• Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
• Ashland Independent Film Festival
• Human Rights Watch Film Festival
• Bluhm Legal Clinic
• Wisconsin Film Festival
• Crossroads Film Festival
• Georgetown Law School
• Montana Public Defenders
• IFF Boston
• Full Frame at Dartmouth
• Little Rock Film Festival
• The San Francisco Independent Film Festival
• Traverse City Film Festival
• KindlingsFest 2013
• New Zealand International Film Festival
• San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
• Montreal International Black Film Festival
• Heartland Film Festival
• Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol
• AFI Docs
• Institute of Contemporary Art, London

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TWN acknowledges that in New York we are on the unceded territory of the Lenni Lenape, Canarsie, Shinecock, and Munsee peoples and challenges the harm that continues to be inflicted upon Indigenous and People of Color communities here and abroad, which is why we all need to be part of the struggle for rights, equality and justice.

TWN is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Color Congress, MOSAIC, New York Community Trust, Peace Development Fund, Ford Foundation, Golden Globe Foundation, Kolibri Foundation and individual donors.