Brandy Alexander's newest client has been charged with raping his 12-year-old daughter. Alexander, a public defender in rural Georgia, expects him to tell her why the accusation is wrong, why he is innocent. Instead, he explains in unapologetic detail why he committed the rape. "Every case has a redeeming quality, not necessarily every person," a colleague tells Alexander, who simultaneously oversees hundreds of similar cases. In the documentary Gideon's Army, screening as part of the Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival, we meet three such public defenders. They're all working in the Deep South, 50 years after the Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright ruling established the right to counsel for those who can't afford representation. They're young and idealistic lawyers challenging the status quo of an overburdened criminal justice system, and their personal concessions are wrenching: We watch Alexander count out $3 in quarters to put gas in her car for the week. Another defender, Travis Williams, tattoos the names of defeated clients on his back. At one point, his girlfriend visits him at the office to discuss a contract they signed in which he agreed to arrive home by a certain hour. Director Dawn Porter's approach is appropriately austere, with no voice-over narration. The tone leaves viewers with the same somber ambiguity the subjects of Gideon's Army face every day, in their struggle to uphold an ideal of "justice for all."
Critic's Grade: B+