Old South. Directed by Danielle Beverly. Evanston, IL: Petunia Productions, 2015. 54 minutes.
Gideon’s Army. Directed by Dawn Porter. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2013. 95 minutes.
Southern Discomfort: Private Property and Public Defenders
Old South opens with White men gnawing on cigars while sitting on horseback. White women donning hoop skirts evoke the quintessential feminine imagery of Southern belles. And resting in the backdrop is a white-pillared mansion. These are not scenes from David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind but are contemporary images of the historic African American Reese Street community in Athens, Georgia. The film centers on the tension between the Black residents of Reese Street and the 2008 acquisition of neighborhood property on which the University of Georgia built a $3.2 million dollar mansion for its chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order—a fraternity that designates Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder” and has had a comfy relationship with racism, from historic support of the Ku Klux Klan to more recent Blackface parties.
The first half of the film proceeds predictably. The White woman mayor of Athens reacts defensively to the charge that racism is afoot in City Hall. A Kappa Alpha (KA) brother argues that the Civil War was not about race or hatred but was only about preserving the financial incentives of slavery. And a longtime Black resident of Reese Street asks, “What do you do? Do you try to protect the people that are already there and the structures that are already there…. Or do you not just let anyone who buys property willy-nilly tear up the neighborhood that you know and love?” Conflict is on the horizon.
Yet, the second half of the film abruptly shifts tack. A White organizer of a community garden recruits KA members to pitch in. The KA leaders begin to speak glowingly of their Black neighbors and are relieved that they are treated kindly. And “six months later” the film tells us, KA members are observed mentoring Black elementary and high school students in weekly “study sessions” hosted at the neighborhood Baptist church. All’s well that ends well. For those looking for classroom resources to teach about race, inequality, and “Greek Life,” many resources abound.1 But Old South is not one of them.
The film certainly has moments of interpersonal kindness, but gentility does not displace inequality. The film not only is schizophrenic but also promotes a dangerous racial fantasy. It fails to illumine the actual trials and tribulations of one of the most segregated and unequal social scenes in American life—the college fraternity and sorority system.2 Adding insult to injury, the film frames the well-heeled, White fraternity boys as the agents of change. With kind paternalism, these KA brothers assist with menial and mundane tasks germane to their neighbors’ lives, actions that are then cast as transformative. In so doing, this film perpetuates the media trope of White saviorism, and privileges a superficial narrative of polite and genial “race relations” above that of systemic segregation, racism, and inequality.3 The ultimate costs borne by the Black residents of Reese Street—the demolition of historic homes, the devaluation of property due to the presence of a fraternity house, the “Animal House” behavior now beleaguering their evenings, and a plantation vibe replete with confederate flags, a Civil War cannon, an annual antebellum parade, and the screamed evocations that “the South will rise again”—are neither resolved nor mentioned.4 KA brothers simply weed the local garden and racism is similarly uprooted with ease.
If Old South is guilty of White saviorism, Gideon’s Army trades on the quest for justice. The film takes its name from Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), wherein the Supreme Court declared that all defendants are entitled to legal representation when they cannot afford it, commonly from lawyers called public defenders. The film centers on the stories of Brandy Alexander, June Hardwick, and Travis Williams, three public defenders who labor to give their clients, who are disproportionally poor and Black, fair and equal treatment under the law.
The accused face an uphill battle. Without legal representation, admitting guilt may seem like a shorter path back home, partly because, as Georgia assistant public defender Brett Willis puts it plainly in the film, “the system is designed to force them to plead guilty. And it punishes their failure to comply.” Before their day in court, those unable to afford bail sit in jail. In the meantime, they may lose their job and their residence, while their families that need them go without. Suffering extends far beyond the alleged victim of the crime. Public defenders, too, have a Sisyphean task. Saddled with crippling student loans, low pay, hundreds of case files, and even death threats from clients, they frequently bear the cumulative trauma of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. The film is a tour de force of this Janus-faced injustice.
Gideon’s Army would pair exceptionally well with scholarship on the inequities of the criminal justice system.5 Either Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court or Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court would provide students with substantive material to digest and debate.6 Another appropriate pick is Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice.7 Written by Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School professor Jonathan Rapping, it is his Southern Public Defender Training Center (now known as “Gideon’s Promise”) that guided and supported Alexander and Williams in Georgia as well as Hardwick in Mississippi.
Most of the twelve million people arrested annually in the United States will be represented by one of only fifteen thousand public defenders—a situation that former US Attorney General Eric Holder called a “national crisis.”8 Perhaps the paramount civil rights issue of our day but hiding in front of our faces, this Leviathan feeds on Black and Brown bodies. Unmasking this beast for critical interrogation is a pedagogical goal most worthy and necessary. And while some may view it as a prime example of “Southern justice,” there are sixteen states that presently have no commission to oversee and hold accountable the courts for the amount and quality of public defender services. Of those sixteen, only three (Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi) are in the South.9
I was raised in the South. I pledged a Southern chapter of a historically African American fraternity. And I have seen more than a few Southern Black friends incarcerated while similarly situated Southern White counterparts received probation. But racism is not the domain of the South. Racism knows no borders. I would thus caution anyone using these films in the classroom to not paint with too broad a regional brush. Now a professor in New England, I see the very same racism (from collegiate fraternalism to criminal jurisprudence) flourishing in the “progressive” North, even as my neighbors believe they are too enlightened to indulge it.
1 Kathleen E. Gillion, Cameron C. Beatty, and Cristobal Salinas Jr., “Race and Racism in Fraternity and Sorority Life: A Historical Overview,” New Directions for Student Services 2019, no. 165 (Spring 2019): 9-16; Matthew W. Hughey, “Brotherhood or Brothers in the ‘Hood’? Debunking the ‘Educated Gang’ Thesis as Black Fraternity and Sorority Slander,” Race, Ethnicity and Education 11, no. 4 (November 2008): 443-63; Matthew W. Hughey, “A Paradox of Participation: Nonwhites in White Sororities and Fraternities,” Social Problems 57, no. 4 (2010): 653-79; Craig Torbenson and Gregory S. Parks, eds., Brothers and Sisters: Diversity in College Fraternities and Sororities (Vancouver, British Columbia: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009); Nicholas L. Syrett, The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
2 Kristen N. Jozkowski and Jacquelyn D. Wiersma‐Mosley, “The Greek System: How Gender Inequality and Class Privilege Perpetuate Rape Culture,” Family Relations 66, no. 1 (February 2017): 89-103; Alan D. DeSantis, Inside Greek U.: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007); Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
3 On White saviorism, see Brittany A. Aronson, “The White Savior Industrial Complex: A Cultural Studies Analysis of a Teacher Educator, Savior Film, and Future Teachers,” Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis 6, no. 3 (2017): 36-54; Nicole Maurantonio, “‘Reason to Hope?’: The White Savior Myth and Progress in ‘Post-Racial’ America,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 94, no. 4 (February 2017): 1130-45; Matthew W. Hughey, “Racializing Redemption, Reproducing Racism: The Odyssey of Magical Negroes and White Saviors,” Sociology Compass 6, no. 9 (September 2012): 751-67; Matthew W. Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014). On systemic inequities, see Albert Memmi, Racism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).
4 Daniel Burnett, “Love Thy Neighbor?: The Kappa Alpha House Draws Criticism from Some Local Residents,” The Red & Black, April 22, 2009; Maggie Holland and Savannah Sicurella, “Confronting UGA's History of Blackface and Racism on Campus from the Past 70 Years,” The Red & Black, February 28, 2021; Amy Harmon, “Fraternity That Reveres Robert E. Lee Faces Revolt Over Racism,” New York Times, October 19, 2020; Greta Anderson, “Principles and Punishment,” Inside Higher Ed, July 23, 2020.
5 Rebecca Marcus, “Racism in Our Courts: The Underfunding of Public Defenders and Its Disproportionate Impact Upon Racial Minorities,” Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 219–67; Marisa Omori and Nick Petersen, “Institutionalizing Inequality in the Courts: Decomposing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Detention, Conviction, and Sentencing,” Criminology 58, no. 4 (November 2020): 678-713; Ellen A. Donnelly, “The Politics of Racial Disparity Reform: Racial Inequality and Criminal Justice Policymaking in the States,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 42, no. 1 (March 2017): 1-27; Kristin Turney and Sara Wakefield, “Criminal Justice Contact and Inequality,” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 5, no. 1 (February 2019): 1-23.
6 Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016); Matthew Clair, Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).
7 Jonathan Rapping, Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice (Boston: Beacon, 2020).
8 Stephen Holden, “Foot Soldiers in the Battle for a Fair Shake,” New York Times, June 27, 2013; Eric Holder, “Attorney General Eric Holder on Indigent Defense Reform,” Brennan Center for Justice, November 18, 2009.
9 David Carroll, “Right to Counsel Services in the 50 States: An Indigent Defense Reference Guide for Policymakers,” Sixth Amendment Center.