During a time of intense concern over the impact and integrity of the Supreme Court, director Dawn Porter brings us Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court. The four-part documentary series examines the modern era of the Supreme Court, including the people, decisions, and major confirmation battles that have shaped the court into what it is today.
Dawn Porter is an attorney turned award-winning filmmaker and founder of the production company Trilogy Films. Her work has appeared on ESPN, Netflix, HBO, PBS, and Discovery.
BGN had the pleasure of speaking with Porter via Zoom to discuss the goal of the docuseries, the role racism and white supremacy have played, and what she’s hoping people learn from the series.
The docuseries is eye-opening and I considered it to be a history lesson. Mentioned in the series, Barack Obama says that the goal of the Supreme Court is “to protect those that are most vulnerable.” However, many Americans don’t feel that way or even trust the court. Is the goal of this series to help build people’s understanding and trust?
It’s a really great place to start. One of the things I was so happy about was that Showtime agreed to do four hours, so that we have the time to go back through this history. My background is I’m a lawyer; I went to Georgetown Law School. So, I lived six blocks away from the court. I am a Black Girl Nerd! I would walk by the court, look up and think, “This is the court that gave us Brown vs. Board of Education; this is the court that gave us the right to an attorney.” So, I wanted to start the series with the opportunity to examine Thurgood Marshall’s legacy — how he won 29 out of 32 cases before he even came to the court.
I wanted to start there in episode 1 so that we remember how valuable this Court has been in shaping our lives. Then move forward to ask, “How did we get here?” and take people through that. I think where we are right now is in a very serious place where there’s a lot of public opinion that is negative. The court has been both a leader and a follower. It’s up to us to pay attention and ask for reasonable and basic things like a code of ethics. I hope that this series crystallizes around what we should be paying attention to.
Racism and white supremacy have been at the root of everything in this country. From your perspective as a lawyer, how do we productively continue to dismantle the bad and rebuild the good?
We started working on this about three years ago. It was because the executive running Showtime literally called me up and said, “Do you want to do something on the Supreme Court?” I said, “Yes, I do!”
With that opportunity, I had to figure out what to focus on. There are 200 minutes of archive that is in this series, and that is intentional. We are living in a time when people don’t really trust what people say. This literally could have been just Supreme Court and race because it shows up over and over. Even when race is not the central question, it is influencing either the decision makers or the decisions.
We hear Richard Nixon in the series saying that he’s “for abortion, sometimes, when there’s a Black and a white.” He’s not even trying to keep the quiet part secret. He knew he was being recorded. Race is indelibly intertwined with the history of our country. I did want to point out that even when we’re not supposed to be talking about race, we’re talking about race.
Last year, when the Dobbs decision was leaked, it was probably the worst breach I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. How does something like this happen and what impact will it continue to have?
There are leaks that happen all the time. The one place that usually did not happen was the Supreme Court. There’s a lot of reasons for that. One is because it’s smaller. The other reason is that the clerks take an oath. The clerks are privy to the decisions made, and historically it’s been a pretty tight seal.
One thing I focused on about the leak is, as you said, that it even happened. We are in a different era where you can’t trust things are going to be held close to the vest. We are at the place where the inside people who have sworn an oath to protect the sanctity of the court process are violating that oath. I think that signals we are in a different time. Different times call for different approaches.
One of the things we really need to impose is restraint from the court. Restraint is like a code of ethics. You can’t just count on people to do the right thing, apparently.
In Episode 2, we see the discussion of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I became invested in that case because it was something I connected with and was interested in the outcome. Do you find that this is generally how people operate?
I really do. That is also a goal of this series to say there are many more of those decisions that affect you than you may be focused on. My grandmother used to say, “Before the Supreme Court decision…” as if there was only one. But for her, it was. So, she marked time as either pre-Brown and post-Brown. It’s because it affected her daily life.
Like you, I was in law school when the Thomas hearings were happening. I used to walk past the Supreme Court, and I remember seeing, written in chalk, “Believe Anita Hill.” Those hearings captivated the country. We watched with horror this group of all white men. Many women, universally, felt they weren’t going to believe her. I felt very personally involved in that decision.
Anita Hill was really telling us something important at that hearing. She was saying if this is what a person believes in private, then you have to be concerned about this person’s character. That is why she came forward and subjected herself to decades of threats, humiliation, and stress.
I wanted to hear from the justices themselves. Was that ever a plan to have them participate in this?
They can do it, if they choose. We wrote to all of the justices for interviews, and we were politely declined. I think it was a really missed opportunity.
What are you hoping people will take away from this series?
I hope that people respect what this court has done in the past; I hope they recognize we are not powerless and we can certainly make our opinions known. I would hope people continue to pressure their elected leaders and ask questions. I hope people focus on the importance of the court so that it doesn’t seem so mysterious. We can strengthen it and keep it for another 200 years.
Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court premieres on Showtime September 22, 2023.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.