Philly D.A.

“Culture Eats Policy”

David Lerner (University of Georgia)

In the first episode of Philly D.A. (Yoni Brook, Ted Passon, & Nicola Salazar, 2021), there is a moment when it sinks in for Larry Krasner on election night that he is poised to become Philadelphia’s next district attorney. Krasner is generally a cool customer—even during confrontations, he is reasoned and logical, confident to the point of arrogance. But in this fleeting moment, a hint of impostor syndrome peeks through, with Krasner struck by doubts that his background as a civil rights attorney and an agitator working against the system rather than within it, renders him ill-prepared. He openly wonders if he knows what the job of a district attorney is outside of what he’s read in comic books. Krasner’s staff members buck him up, assure him that he’s earned this, and remind him not to say anything about activism in his acceptance speech because he is the institution now. But they also revel: “it’s a fucking revolution.”

The eight, hour-long episodes of Philly D.A. document Krasner’s first year or so in office, working to enact criminal justice policies that have come to be associated with the nationwide progressive prosecutor movement: reducing mass incarceration; ending cash bail; shortening parole and probation sentencing periods; and increasing spending on rehabilitative (rather than punitive) measures, such as education, job placement programs, and substance abuse and mental health resources. District attorneys wield enormous power to shape criminal justice policies—possibly too much power. Prosecutorial discretion allows district attorneys broad authority to make charging determinations, and we are given incredible access in the series to major decisions, including the meeting early in Krasner’s term where he and his team decide to cease pursuing simple marijuana possession and sex work charges. But, although progressive prosecutors have an immediate mantle to enact significant changes (and Krasner’s election mandate was sizeable), the obstacles to these significant policy shifts in long-standing criminal approaches are substantial. Over the course of Philly D.A., Krasner’s team faces resistance from, to name a few, magistrate judges who think long probation sentences effectively reduce recidivism, media outlets that connect progressive policies to rising violent crime rates in the city, and, most notably, the Fraternal Order of Police, the powerful police union and its straight-out-of-central-casting president, John McNesby, who see Krasner’s approach as a dangerous social experiment that threatens community safety and undermines victims’ and police interests.

McNesby is hardly a sympathetic figure. Over the course of the show, he cozies up to family members of victims who seek the death penalty while ignoring other family members who do not, defends a cop who shot an unarmed man in the back, and refers to Black Lives Matters protestors who demonstrate outside that officer’s home as “animals.” It’s easy to root for Krasner in the face of such racist bluster, and Philly D.A. generally critiques the entrenched power structures that Krasner faces down. However, the series also reveals the flexibility of the system, which allows it to withstand an attempted prosecutorial revolution.

Krasner’s team aims to change the culture of the previous administration and transform the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, with one ADA likening Krasner’s team to “pirates invading a ship.” When Krasner offers advice to a like-minded DA in another city, he recommends firing as many people as necessary who do not understand the mission—otherwise “they dig in like ticks” and “undermine you.” Despite the power accrued by his office, Krasner spends much of the show speaking and behaving like an outsider, perhaps best exemplified by the 2011 Time magazine cover in his meeting room featuring “the Protestor” as person-of-the-year. Krasner and his team frequently refer to their mission as one of restoring balance to a prosecutor’s office that has lost its way during previous decades of wrong-headed policies, but the degree to which these policies have become entrenched as common-sense principles presents both logistical and rhetorical challenges. As Krasner realizes in the debates about ending cash bail, it is appropriate to end a bad system that doesn’t work, but you still have to replace it with something. Put differently, in the Episode 6 debate over a potential “safe injection site” for opioid addicts in the Kensington neighborhood, Krasner notes that “everyone agrees the system is broken,” but “not everyone agrees what ‘fixed’ looks like.” That’s the hard part.

a man sits at a conference table with his back to the camera. A poster-sized Time magazine cover hangs on wall in the background

The problems in the criminal justice system are indeed systemic in nature. A seemingly positive reform out of the prosecutor’s office might well have a reactionary ripple effect elsewhere in the criminal justice system (policing, the legislature, the judiciary, etc.). Further, most criminal justice challenges cannot be solved by any amount of prosecution reform because of crime’s interconnectedness to other problems of poverty, racism, failures of education, and the list goes on. The real question that the show asks is how to enact systemic change from within the system while controlling only one small piece of that system, however powerful that piece might be. Krasner says that he did not run for office to enact change at a glacial pace, and, indeed, the mass firings of ADAs from the previous administration speak to a disinterest in the potential advantages of institutional memory in favor of the preferred benefits of a clean slate and a shared mission. But the urgency of day-to-day responsibilities in a DA’s office in a major city belie the viability of rapid change. Systemic change is big and data-driven, but cases are ad hoc and fact-driven, and every day there are new files to process. Further, victim advocacy and community safety remain core commitments that cannot be shirked.

Philly D.A. is most successful in the way it reveals how, despite the power of prosecutorial discretion and the legitimate promise of progressive prosecutors, the criminal justice system is a massive network of entrenched state and local institutions alongside an ecosystem of smaller community organizations. Throughout the episodes, we see the incredible work being done in Philadelphia by criminal justice reform groups and individuals, including bail activists, decarceration advocates, not to mention the larger community discourses at town halls and neighborhood events. Krasner’s rise to power, alongside the rise of many other national prosecutors who advocate similar criminal reform policies, teases us with the potential for a savior to remake the system from within. But, as Krasner notes in his pitch urging law students to consider prosecutorial work, “culture will eat policy all day long.” Policy decisions are crucial and can provide quick fixes to urgent problems, but real change can occur only as the cultural values of district attorney’s offices evolve across tenures and generations of reform-minded thinking within a broader criminal justice infrastructure.

“Medium Length: Television, Documentary, and Duration”

Jeff Scheible (Kings College London)

Philly D.A., directed by Ted Passon and Yoni Brook, is an eight-part docuseries on the surprise election and first term of civil rights fighter and criminal justice reformer Larry Krasner as the 26th District Attorney of Philadelphia. It has been included on many lists as one of the year’s best shows, in a crowded media field populated by independent filmmaking, verité TV, legal procedurals, and true crime series–all modes which the series occupies or is at least adjacent to, and whose generic thrills and aesthetic pleasures Philly D.A. features in varying degrees.

When political discourse in the public sphere tends to be skewed to the more symbolic level of the national and the presidential, Philly D.A. has the virtue of alerting its audience to the importance of local politics in creating change. Spending time in and around Krasner’s office, we see how the wheels of change might actually be set in motion, but also how idealist fantasies face practical obstacles. The series frequently reveals how difficult it is to actually ratify progressive reform since it requires cooperation and conversation across a complex set of institutions, each steeped in their own traditions and sense of self-importance—notably here, the Fraternal Order of Police, an intimidating and powerful confederacy of mostly retired police officers that we discover is far too entrenched in Philadelphia’s politics and is implicated in the city’s decades-long failure to prosecute police officers for misconduct. Similarly, while the series makes clear that incarceration and supervision rates are far higher than they should be in Philadelphia (ranking among the highest in the US) and overwhelmingly affect Black men, its episodes are also necessarily attuned to the fact that the logistics of offering alternative state support to residents who need it are far from clear-cut.

To tackle such complex subject matter, Philly D.A. – like Krasner himself – is disruptive, in this case to established documentary formats and distribution practices. Philly D.A.’s first two episodes premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Feb 2, 2021, where producer Nicole Salazar received the Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction Filmmaking. These same two episodes premiered internationally at an outdoor screening in June 2021 at the Berlinale, becoming the first documentary series in its history to screen at the high-profile festival’s “Berlinale Series” sidebar. In between, PBS broadcast the same first two episodes of the ITVS and Independent Lens—produced series on American television’s flagship public channel PBS on April 20, 2021, with single episodes released weekly thereafter until the final episode aired and was made available for streaming in early June.

The screening of two episodes out of eight in film festival contexts reflects an increasingly common practice one can witness at festivals around the world, as programmers attempt to include exciting or innovative television content but grapple with what Nick Salvato outlines as television’s unwieldy scales. Television’s programming in contexts designed for film is a thorny, unresolved problem whose solution remains tantalizing at best and unsatisfying at worst, requiring us to reorient expectations of spectatorial encounter: the festival audience inevitably sees an incomplete text, whose partialness is more narratively and temporally determined than the random series of moments in a video installation a museumgoer who wanders into a black box or white cube might observe in medias res.

One set of broader questions the series’ schedule of premieres raises for film and media scholars is related to categorization. Put crudely: is Philly D.A. long-form documentary or is it television? Its textual promiscuity raises issues that reflect both the docuseries’ own shapeshifting production history and the wider—also shifting—media ecology of which it is part. As Brook has explained, Philly D.A. was initially intended to be a 90-minute feature film—historically the running time documentaries have been expected to adhere to, in conformity with fiction filmmaking. But as production was underway, the small filmmaking team felt obliged to expand the radius of the story outwards, in order to document the range of other people “also influencing decisions in the D.A.’s office like judges, activists, people who themselves are on supervision or incarcerated. It became clear this had to be more than just a feature. It had to be a series.”

Its expanded running time thus becomes a mark of seriality’s capacity for increased seriousness, a word itself etymologically indebted to the Latin word “series,” denoting sequential arrangement. Yet this linguistic lineage is at odds with a commonplace and longstanding view of aesthetic hierarchies that posits television as a “vast wasteland,” somewhere below the art of cinema. It also reflects an assumption that a work’s running time might directly correlate with a work’s ability to somehow lead to more responsible representation—a seductive idea that might feel true but which at the same time belies the mythology of what André Bazin has called the “myth of total cinema” or what ethnographer George Marcus has termed “the fiction of the whole,” the necessarily abstracted entity – “the state,” “the economy,” “world system,” “capitalism” – that a local ethnography implicitly represents.

Indeed, one of Philly D.A.’s many merits is, in the great tradition of documentaries by Frederick Wiseman and narratively ground-breaking television like The Wire, its recognition of and focus on the system—the ever-elusive, bureaucratically-encrusted source and structure of society’s ills. Yet unlike The Wire’s sprawling sixty hours or the 81 minutes of Wiseman’s Law and Order (a 1969 film distributed by PBS’s predecessor National Educational Television) about the Kansas City Police Department, Philly D.A. is what I would refer to as “medium-length”: durationally between the multiple-season television series and the feature-length documentary. Medium-length media are increasingly common and pose some distinct categorical challenges—think not only of production and festival programming, but also of pedagogy and even Awards categories, exemplified by debates over O.J.: Made in America (2016). Another 8-hour episodic and kaleidoscopic examination of race and America’s systemic injustices anchored in a single figure, Ezra Edelman’s ESPN-produced work won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, but then prompted the Academy to disqualify multi-part series (such as Philly D.A.) from eligibility for future awards. The mechanisms of recognition acknowledging work in the documentary landscape are premised on conceptual distinctions between media forms that are largely becoming Procrustean and obsolete.

Philly D.A.’s own medium-length helps pry open the question of duration and scale in relation to documentary form in the contemporary media ecology. While I think it would be misguided to assume that longer is better, and I do suspect that this is an assumption that shapes critical reception, there are nonetheless undeniable affordances that accompany increased duration, including the opportunity to asymptotically approach a fuller, more detailed, and productively messier portrait of the social or diegetic world represented. One could imagine Philly D.A. expanded along the lines of The Wire – covering a different institution in the city (the D.A.’s office, the Fraternal Order of Police, the judiciary, the prison system) over the course of separate seasons, and I do imagine this would have felt even more complete. Medium-length durational works, which I would be hesitant to quantify exactly, though a single-season mini-series of 8 hours seems exemplary, seem governed by a “Goldilocks principle” meant to make something complex a bit more palatable—neither too hot nor too cold but just right. Medium-length television doesn’t require the demanding investment of a full series, but it affords an audience an opportunity to get to know a cast of characters more than a feature film watched in a single viewing.

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