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June 27 2020
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From right, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte post bail for civil-rights protesters John Lewis, James Foreman, Willie Ricks, and Cleveland Sellers.

When Dawn Porter’s assistant handed her a pen and beamed with pride as she said, “Here’s one of those pens you like!,” Porter asked herself, Have I become a person who has a favorite office supply? She decided then to walk away from her job as a lawyer at ABC News and pursue filmmaking with a purpose. Making images about black life that differed from those dominating film and television became her calling.

“With shows like Cops on television, I felt that America was only seeing black Americans involved with vice,” says Porter, 54. She wanted to capture what she knew of the black community with a fresh, nuanced lens. Porter’s first film, which debuted at Sundance and was nominated for an Emmy, is a documentary about young black public defenders in the South. “Gideon’s Army shows black lawyers working in the criminal-justice system to free innocent people whilst battling discrimination within it,” Porter says. The 2013 film exposes one of the many forms of systemic racism that exist in our country: young black men, whether innocent or guilty, are imprisoned at a disproportionate rate, with the vast majority unable to afford an attorney or even bail.

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