Dawn Porter Delves Into The Supreme Court With "Deadlocked" Docuseries
Dawn Porter (photo by Kevin Scanlon)
One piece of documentary filmmaking informs another as the value of history is underscored once again by the acclaimed filmmaker, who is on the commercial/branded content roster of Institute

Learning from history is central to the work of documentarian Dawn Porter--and that includes her own filmmaking history and how it informs subsequent projects. A prime case in point is her four-part docuseries Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court, which chronicles how the U.S. Supreme Court has evolved--or in some respects devolved--into its current state. Deadlocked debuts next week on Showtime as well as streamer Paramount+ with Showtime.

Providing context and inspiration in part for Porter’s examination of the highest court in the land was her prior documentary feature, The Lady Bird Diaries, based both on the book “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain sight” by Julia E. Sweig, and the ABC News podcast, “Podcasts in Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson.”  The Lady Bird Diaries uses Lady Bird’s audio diaries to tell the story of one of the most influential and least understood First Ladies in history. The Porter feature, which debuted at this year’s SXSW Festival and was done with ABC News, looked at the 123 hours of personal and revealing audio diaries that Lady Bird recorded during the administration of her husband, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Researching Lady Bird, Porter discovered that after LBJ’s death, the First Lady made his audio tapes available for public review. “Lady Bird was a journalist,” related Porter, adding that the late First Lady owned a radio station, went to journalism school and wrote extensively. LBJ’s tapes were “a treasure trove of information,” noted Porter, which shed light on President Johnson. Porter related, for instance, that President Johnson was often portrayed, rightly so, as “aggressive,” “macho,” a figure who was “crass and bullying.” But, continued Porter, there are often different sides to complex people and that applied to Johnson.

Through Lady Bird’s eyes we learned that there was much more to her husband, observed Porter, including a progressive mindset and along those lines “how determined he was in some of his objectives”--one of which was to make groundbreaking civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall the first Black Justice on the Supreme Court. Towards that end, we see in “The Hearts of Men Can Be Changed,” which is the first episode of Deadlocked, how calculating Johnson was in laying the groundwork for a historic addition to the Supreme Court. As an attorney, Marshall had argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 times, including the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education in which the Supreme Court unanimously under Chief Justice Earl Warren found segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.

Looking to add to Marshall’s record-setting total of Supreme Court wins, Johnson first appointed him to solicitor general at the U.S. Justice Department in 1965. That way, reasoned LBJ, opponents could not argue that Marshall was unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court, an argument often made against Black candidates in varied walks of professional life. This helped clear the way for Marshall when President Johnson nominated him to serve as a Supreme Court Justice in 1967. Marshall went on to render landmark decisions for equal justice under the law, standing up for the rights of the marginalized, impoverished and disenfranchised.

Porter recollected to SHOOT being in awe of what the Supreme Court had accomplished, dating back to her time as a law student and then a practicing attorney. She even recalled her profound feeling of admiration as she walked past the court every day on her way to law school at Georgetown. As of late, though, the admiration that many had for the court has diminished in light of recent decisions and dramatic changes in practice. On the latter score, Deadlocked for example points out that during the tenure of two-term Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, a combined 16 years, there was a total of eight requests for emergency docket decisions, four of which were granted. In sharp contrast, during President Donald Trump’s four-year term, there were 41 such requests, 28 of which were granted. In that such Supreme Court decisions are made on an expedited basis, they carry no written opinions or attribution. We don’t know who voted for the prevailing side and why. The lack of accountability and explanation seems the antithesis of what the Supreme Court once was.

Also antithetical was the Supreme Court’s decision to in effect uphold Texas restrictions on abortion--even at a time when Roe v. Wade was the law of the land. In effect, the Supreme Court did not protect its own ruling, instead giving a state the power to enact practices contrary to what the court deemed a constitutional right. Ultimately, of course, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Porter thought it essential to show in Deadlocked how the Supreme Court at one point represented higher ideals and progressive change. She crafted part of the documentary as a reminder of “what the Court can do in a positive way for so many people”--from desegregating schools to legalizing interracial marriage. Today, she said, that presence in everyday people’s lives is “most often negative” and “not in step with widely held values” relative to such issues as reproductive freedom, the right of the Environmental Protection Agency to do its job, and efforts to reduce gun violence.

Deadlocked doesn’t delve into the other measure of doubt recently cast on the Supreme Court by the news of lavish gifts from wealthy donors to Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, as well as other potential conflicts of interest. 

Deadlocked, which Porter directed and executive produced, takes us through the modern history of the Supreme Court starting in the 1950s under Chief Justice Warren who oversaw significant human rights-affirming decisions. Deadlocked then takes us through to today, along the way examining the people, decisions and confirmation battles that have shaped the Supreme Court--including the latest addition, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Interviews with experts across the political spectrum provide insights, including Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, Theodore B. Olson who was solicitor general under President George W. Bush, U.C. Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, and John Bash, a former law clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Porter said that among her biggest takeaways from Deadlocked is simply that, “We all need to be vigilant. We are our own protectors. We need to pressure our elected officials to make sure our rights are protected the way they should be. We need to keep our eyes on the processes.”

Body of work
Deadlocked adds to Porter’s body of work which ranges far and wide. She won a Sundance Special Jury Prize in 2016 for her documentary Trapped, which was also nominated that same year for the SXSW Gamechanger Award. Trapped explored TRAP Laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that regulated abortion clinics in the South. Porter was also in the running for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2013 for her documentary Gideon’s Army (which won a Sundance honor for editing). Gideon’s Army, which introduces us to three Black public defenders in the South, was additionally nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Last year, she again was nominated for a Spirit Award, this time for Philly D.A. in the Best New Non-Scripted or Documentary Series category. Also in 2022 Porter received the Critics Choice Association’s Impact Award which recognizes documentarians whose work has resulted in tangible societal changes. That came just two years after she was a Critics Choice Documentary Award nominee for John Lewis: Good Trouble, which examined the late Congressman John Lewis’ pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement and decades of political and social activism on vital issues including voting rights and immigration laws.

Porter was celebrated at AFI Docs, the American Film Institute’s documentary film festival, as the 2021 Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree. The Guggenheim Symposium honors a master of the nonfiction art form. That year AFI Docs screened Porter’s Rise Again: Tulsa And The Red Summer followed by an in-depth conversation with the documentarian. Rise Again: Tulsa And The Red Summer followed award-winning Washington Post journalist DeNeen Brown as her investigation into a mass grave in her home state of Oklahoma led her to dig deeper into the racial violence of the early 20th century. The film came 100 years after the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, during which hundreds of Tulsa’s Black residents were murdered and thousands were displaced.

Porter’s extensive filmography also includes: The Way I See It, about photojournalist Pete Souza who served as chief official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan and President Barack Obama; the four-part documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President; and Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net, highlighting the return of Cirque du Soleil after the Montreal-based entertainment company was shuttered during the global COVID pandemic.

As for what’s next, Porter is slated to direct a Sony Music Entertainment documentary about the life and career of legendary R&B singer Luther Vandross. She is also attached to direct and exec produce a six-part series on the continuation of the historic civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize for HBO.

Porter is also exploring shorter form endeavors in the commercialmaking and branded content world via Institute, filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s production company which is designed to open up opportunities in the advertising space for women directors and other underrepresented voices spanning different ethnicities.

Porter described Greenfield as “a visionary in so many ways,” breaking barriers with her filmmaking accomplishments and then affording other women and minorities the chance to bring their talents to bear on the advertising and entertainment fronts.

Greenfield made history as the first solo woman director to be nominated for the DGA Award in the commercials category--that came in 2015 (when the only other woman nominees in the spotmaking category up to that point were part of directing teams with men). Even before breaking that glass ceiling, Greenfield had a DGA Awards pedigree. Two years earlier she earned her first DGA Award nomination for the feature documentary The Queen of Versailles.

Greenfield’s DGA commercial nomination came for P&G/Always’ “#LikeAGirl,” which also won the primetime commercial Emmy Award, 14 Cannes Lions (including the Titanium Lion), seven Clios and was designated by YouTube as one of the top “Ads of the Decade.” “#LikeAGirl” was also an AICP Show honoree and became part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The work garnered 200 million views online, 12 billion impressions and became a Super Bowl commercial.

Meanwhile The Queen of Versailles also went beyond its DGA recognition, including earning Greenfield the Best Documentary Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Greenfield also garnered Writers Guild Award nominations for the documentaries Generation Wealth and The Kingmaker. Generation Wealth additionally was honored with the Film Independent Spirit of Independence Award. The Kingmaker received a Critics’ Choice Award for Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary (Imelda Marcos). And Greenfield’s documentary Thin received a primetime Emmy  nomination,

Porter said she’s “excited and honored” to be part of Institute and hopes she, like Greenfield, can help other women directors gain a voice in the industry. Greenfield, continued Porter, represents the good that “people with a platform can do.”


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