On Wednesday, March 16, the Department of Film & Media Studies and the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility hosted a screening and panel discussion of two episodes of the award-winning docuseries, Philly D.A. The panel welcomed Chief of Staff in the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia Mike Lee, activist LaTonya Myers, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies and filmmaker Yoni Brook. The panel was moderated by Associate Professor Nina Johnson of the Sociology Department and Black Studies.
Brook, one of the directors of the eight-part docuseries, is a three-time Independent Spirit-nominated cinematographer and producer. Brook co-directed The Calling, a four-hour series about young religious leaders for Independent Lens. His directorial debut A Son’s Sacrifice, also for Independent Lens, won Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival. Brook currently teaches a Digital Production Fundamentals course at Swarthmore this semester.
The docuseries, notably supported by Dawn Porter ’88 in an Executive Producer role, follows progressive criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner and his successful run for District Attorney of Philadelphia in 2017. His campaign focused on mass incarceration and reforming other aspects of the criminal justice system. His Chief of Staff Mike Lee was also in attendance, a prominent figure in the docuseries.
Preceding the panel, two episodes of the series were screened, capping out at about two hours. The first episode set the stage for what would be a radical term in office, chronicling a majority of Krasner’s campaign, as well as the public reaction. As a criminal defense lawyer specializing in civil rights, Krasner’s presence was electric. Funny, smart, and not afraid to speak his mind, Krasner is shown casually conversing with a variety of Philadelphians, some reacting extremely positively and others harboring some doubts. His opponent, Republican Beth Grossman and former assistant district attorney, was portrayed as the safer, more reliable option, with years of experience in the D.A.’s office compared to Krasner’s none. But the people of Philadelphia clearly didn’t want the status quo: they wanted change. What was once Krasner’s number one enemy as a criminal defense lawyer, the District Attorney’s Office (DAO), became his home base. Ways in which he viewed the fight for criminal justice reform had to change, as he was now in an unprecedented position — he was on the inside.
The first episode was filled with success, Krasner winning by a landslide. With a camera in the corner, we listened as one staffer said, “You can’t say the activist community beat the institution, you are the institution. You’re the man now. You love everybody.” A slightly shaky hand-held shot brought the audience even closer to the win, creating a sense of intimacy even in the observational mode of the film. As Krasner and his staff took office, they fired 31 attorneys, creating a mass exodus in the middle of a snowy January day. The change in tone was drastic, as many began to quickly realize that reform was inevitable.
The second episode screened, the fourth of eight in the series, followed activist LaTonya Myers, another panelist in attendance, as she dealt with the responsibilities of her career and the demands of her ten-year probation sentence. Paralleling her struggle with probation, the D.A.’s team pursued systemic probation reform in an effort to break the cycle of mass incarceration in Philadelphia. Myers is the Support Coordinator at the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. Known simply as T, she also founded Above All Odds, which empowers and supports Philadelphians to create change in their communities through mentorship, civic engagement, and know your rights training.
Although I only watched two of the eight episodes of the docuseries that night, a few things became abundantly clear. Co-director Yoni Brook is a master of storytelling, interweaving archival footage and moments within the D.A.’s Office. The filmmaking style is seamless and yet not completely invisible, convincing the viewer of perfect realism while simultaneously interjecting newsreels and images of a past Philadelphia made new. The minimalist and observational direction left the screen to be taken up by the unapologetic personality of Larry Krasner and his team. Engaging and fast-paced, yet also rich in context, Philly D.A. is able to dive deep into Krasner’s election and the following change he strives to make. Dynamics are shifting, power is upended and placed in different pockets, and the goals of one of the most powerful institutions in Philadelphia suddenly has a new agenda. This is ultimately not a story of Krasner’s victory, which is really only a chapter in a larger narrative, but a story of what happens when activism is given unprecedented resources.
Professor Johnson began the panel with two questions for Brook, asking “What’s the story that you’re telling here and what attracted you to it? What do you hope this story reveals to us, in us, through us, all of us who are watching?”
“This story began sort of organically, in the sense that the team behind this film, I think set out to make a short film, originally about a longshot candidacy for the district attorney’s office by Larry Krasner, who had been known as you learn about in the film, as a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia, whose opponent for 30 years had been the District Attorney’s office,” Brook began, giving further context behind the making of the film. “So many films are made about elections, but it’s very difficult to make a film about the aftermath of the election.”
Almost by accident, it seemed, Brook and his co-director Ted Passon came to realize that they could simply document the inner-workings of an office that had never been filmed in this way.
“As filmmakers, Ted and myself realized we were in a position where we could just be present at the District Attorney’s office and nobody was telling us to leave, and we just never left. So for about a year, we hung out, and we tried to get into as many policy meetings, discussions, to understand what was going on there.”
Taking the next question in a different direction, Johnson addressed both Brook and Mike Lee, Krasner’s Chief of Staff. Lee previously served as Diversion Unit Supervisor and Director of Legislation and Government Affairs. Prior to joining the Philly DAO, Lee co-founded Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equality, a non-profit organization that seeks justice for low-income individuals who have been in contact with the criminal justice system through programs that promote fair employment and criminal records expungement. Johnson asked, “What’s the role of filmmaking in all of this?” And to Lee, “What is the role of filmmaking for the D.A.’s office? Why continue to participate?”
Brook answered first, explaining that “One of the things that the series tries to grapple with is not just what’s the role of filmmaking, but what is the role of narrative, and oftentimes in the series we return to the stories that are being told in the nightly news or in the press, and sort of how a lot of those stories collapse what’s really going on.”
I found this answer particularly interesting, especially the part about the nightly news “collapsing” what’s really going on. With social media apps presenting much of people’s news for them, stories have been continually compressed and condensed into single soundbites for easy dissemination. This series does the opposite, exploring every nook and cranny of the unfolding situation.
Lee gave insight into the situation from a different perspective: of the one being filmed.
“As someone who has built a nonprofit, it was also really important for me not to have a 30-year career trying to solve the same problem, but to get out of the way so the next person can pick up and improve on what I laid down.” Documenting the foundations of that change is important to Lee, especially with a newborn at home. “It was really so that if the world still sucks when he grows up, at least he has a roadmap to see that this is how his dad fought.”
Steering the conversation more towards activism, Johnson followed up Lee’s answer with, “Can you get more good done on the inside?” She then turned to Myers and asked, “How does your role shift when the D.A. is also seen as an activist? Are the strategies different?”
“I think the integrity of the courtroom was needed,” Myers answered. “And I think that, as an activist as well as a Philadelphian, we should all be able to look at what is happening and believe that we can step up in certain ways, that we can reform things for the better.”
Hopeful but still fully aware of the system, Myers embodied activism rooted in the present, activism that is confident in change. Especially change spearheaded by Larry Krasner and his team in the District Attorney’s office.