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Innocent Until Proven Guilty: James Forman, Jr., Public Defender

1999
Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th Street, NY, NY 10016; 212-808-4980
Produced by Big Mouth Productions
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
VHS, color, 64 min.
College - Adult
American Studies, Criminal Justice, Education, Sociology, African American Studies


Reviewed by Danna Bell-Russel, Digital Reference Team, Library of Congress

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 


James Forman, Jr. is the son of James Forman, the former executive secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commission. Forman, Sr. worked tirelessly within the civil rights movement to insure that all had equal rights. His son now works on two fronts to continue the work that both his parents started. He works as a public defender within the District of Columbia, fighting to protect the rights of those accused of a crime. He also works as the co-founder of See Forever, a school created for students who have been in the DC criminal system and are looking for a fresh start and a way to get an education.

Since this film tends to focus on Forman's work with See Forever and less on his work within the public defender service, viewers may feel that the title is a bit of a misnomer. It is not. Forman feels that though the civil rights movement brought many successes, it's one failure was the inability to secure economic rights for African Americans. As a result Forman finds much hopelessness within the community especially within the young people of the community. Forman works to deter these students from the hopelessness and works with them to develop self-esteem, intelligence and the desire to succeed. The tape contains interviews with a number of students and focuses on three: Samantha, Bobby and Roy. All of them talk about their experiences with their family, the street and the juvenile justice system. During the course of the film Roy is arrested and held for 17 hours before his charges are dropped. Bobby, who is intelligent and quite introspective, tries to do his best but eventually runs away, returns and then drops out to help his girlfriend raise their new baby. Samantha has the greatest success, surviving her first year and aiming towards graduation and college. Also shown is a fund raiser for the organization where Maya Angelou is the speaker. Her speech is inspirational and afterwards it is announced that the school will rename itself in her honor.

Another point of interest is a conversation with Farmer, his father and brother where they talk about child rearing and how to deal with a child and their conflicts. Also illuminating is an interview with Farmer's mother as she discusses what motivates him and his frustration when he tries and is unable to achieve success. More insight is gained during a phone conversation Farmer has with his mother before he goes to court for a case where a woman with a small amount of drugs faces a life sentence based on mandatory sentencing laws, something that Forman objects to. Viewers will see his frustration, but his hope that he will succeed. Also included within this film are a number of statistics documenting the disparate treatment that African-Americans experience within the criminal justice system, something that adds to the hopelessness within the community. Finally, a discussion focuses on the perception of those both inside and outside of the African American community where some of the students interviewed discuss that many expect them to be on drugs, in the criminal justice system or in poverty. Forman notes that if these students have the opportunity and the support, they can often succeed.

This movie is extremely well done and is inspirational. The film would be acceptable for viewers from high school age and above but there is some profanity. It is hard not to say that this film should be found in all library collections but it should definitely be added to of education, criminal justice, American Studies, social sciences, African-American Studies, and counseling studies collections. Also a portion of sales from each tape goes to either See Forever or the Client Emergency Expenses fund of the Public Defender Service of DC. Innocent Until Proven Guilty is a wonderful video and deserves wide distribution.