‘Philly D.A.’: PBS Documentary Series on Civil Rights Activist Probably Should Have Been a Feature

Sundance: The first two installments of the eight-episode series indicate a sprawling non-fiction narrative that goes longer but not deeper.
Philly D.A.
Larry Krasner, the titular "Philly D.A."

Sometimes the best way to make an institution reform is to change it from the inside. That was what longtime Philadelphia civil rights advocate and criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner thought when he launched his bid to become his city’s next district attorney. He won that 2017 election, and “Philly D.A.,” an eight-part documentary series for PBS’ “Independent Lens” banner, shows what happened next. Suddenly, this longtime advocate against mass incarceration was Philadelphia’s top prosecutor.

Krasner entered his role as D.A. with a mission: to end cash bail, something which results in defendants being jailed simply because they’re poor, and find other ways to reform an approach to criminal justice that has resulted in Philadelphia being the most incarcerated major city in the U.S. A few things seem like no-brainers: increase the amount of drugs an arrestee is carrying before major prison time is imposed, lighten the penalties against shoplifting, de facto decriminalize sex work (especially, lower the high arrest rate for sex workers).

But that laser-focus becomes fuzzier and fuzzier over the first two hour-long episodes of “Philly D.A.” made available to critics. So does the filmmaking in the series, created by Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar, itself. The most charitable explanation is that the storytelling onscreen goes slack because Krasner finds himself pulled in so many different directions and his own prioritization becomes scattered.

An art-imitating-life approach doesn’t account for strange structural choices, however: Why is the history of mass incarceration in Philadelphia largely left until 20 minutes into the second episode, when the ignoble legacy of thuggish cop-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo is finally explained? The institutional racism that he encouraged on his watch influenced the standard operating procedure for decades of Philly cops. Even in the 2010s, when much of the Philadelphia police force is made up of officers of color, their advocacy group, the Fraternal Order of Police, is dominated by retired white cops from the Rizzo era.

This feels like context that should have been upfront, while all that’s presented in Episode 1 is the idea that, since future Democratic governor Ed Rendell in the late 1970s, each D.A. in Philadelphia prior to Krasner had been more aggressively anti-crime than the last. Instead of introducing programs to help alleviate poverty, address mental health issues, or provide rec centers, simply locking more people up — almost always Black or Hispanic Philadelphians — became the answer.

Passon and Brook take on primary directing responsibilities for the series and follow Krasner around in what’s partly a Frederick Wiseman-style procedural film about the workings of the District Attorney’s office — with its hundreds of ADAs (assistant district attorneys) reporting in to Krasner — and part advocacy. The first two episodes provide a largely reverent, uncritical view of Krasner himself. We’re to take their word, and Krasner’s own of course, that he’s the best man for the job. One Black woman who’s advocating for criminal justice reform says that, as a white man, Krasner is best positioned to enact that reform, and that statement is presented as pretty much a given. Even if future episodes do offer up more criticism of Krasner, especially on whether he’s delivered on his promises, the fact that “Philly D.A.” premieres on PBS on April 20 — just weeks before the Philadelphia Democratic primary in which he’s being challenged — feels like a boost for his reelection campaign. (Update: The Philadelphia PBS station WHYY will actually delay broadcasting “Philly D.A.” in Philadelphia until after the November 2021 municipal election.)

Unfortunately, the procedural approach is just as problematic as the advocacy. It results in largely inert storytelling that doesn’t humanize the people Krasner’s trying to help as much as it could. The unjustly incarcerated are often considered in the abstract in these very office-bound episodes, dominated by people in business attire talking at podiums or around conference tables. An incident in Episode 1, when a Philadelphia bail fund advocate uses money he’s raised to get three defendants out of jail who can’t otherwise pay their bond (one is just $500) is the kind of ground-up view “Philly D.A.” needed in greater supply. One of those who’d been incarcerated there is a Black teenager who’s been behind bars for eight months simply awaiting trial.

A moment in Episode 2 is equally revelatory: When the mother of a Black teenager who was killed in an act of gun violence learns that her son’s killer will go free because the cops who investigated the killing didn’t follow the proper procedures. They found text messages on the perpetrator’s phone that proved he was the murderer, but they’re not admissible in court because they accessed his phone without a warrant — an act of misconduct caught on a security camera. The mother confronts Krasner with a calm resolve that makes her one for the most admirable people in the entirety of the first two episodes. But she also stands out as one of the few “ordinary people” who are given much screen time.

It’s people exactly like that gun victim’s mom Krasner says he wants to help, via a major push to place hundreds of cops on a “do not call” list — as in too corrupt or inept to be called as credible witnesses in a trial — which will remand them to less sensitive roles. Positions that at least will lower their chances of being key to prosecutors’ cases. Hopefully then, another mom won’t have to see her son’s murderer go free. But if someone like her is who Krasner ultimately says he serves, why aren’t people like her a bigger focus in this series? It’s hard not to think that a feature-length film with a much more clear focus, and not a series juggling so many ingredients in an impersonal fashion, could have more powerfully shown the impact of one man in this important office on the people he serves.

Grade: C+

“Philly D.A.” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It airs on PBS on April 20.

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