Q&A with David Hughes Duke and John Duke
The defenders of the poor reflect on the system
PBA30’s original documentary One Law For All: The Story of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, which premieres October 27 at 8:30 p.m., may cause you to hesitate before lobbing caustic cocktail party barbs at lawyers. Native Atlantan father and son filmmakers David Hughes Duke and John Duke talked about the eighty-seven-year-old nonprofit, which represents the poor in civil legal cases.
Former Governor Roy Barnes says, “Working in legal aid is kind of like working in a legal emergency room. Everything coming in is an emergency.” Is that a sort of thesis for the film?
David: It’s a great line. And Roy Barnes ought to know. After he lost the election [in 2002], he went to work full-time for Atlanta Legal Aid. He knows what he’s talking about. It’s a great summary statement.
John: At the heart of this film, that’s the thesis. The most important aspect of this film is to create awareness about Atlanta Legal Aid. And that really defines what it is on a day-to-day basis. It’s not glamorous at all but so, so necessary. People have these dire life-threatening, life-altering legal needs every single day. That analogy is a great way to communicate that idea.
John, your father had a ten-year history of documenting Atlanta Legal Aid going into this project. But as a twenty-seven-year-old who has a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University you went into this project cold. What shocked you the most as you began your research?
John: Just realizing the vast need for these services. Just going down to their offices was revelatory. On any given weekday, they take the first ten callers. They can only help a handful of people each day. How much of a need there is and how under the radar their work is were things that were really shocking for me. It was something I was completely unaware of until I started on this project.
In 1974, President Richard Nixon first signed the Legal Services Corporation Act to secure federal funding for legal aid. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan cut legal aid funding by 25 percent during his first term. Some of Atlanta’s most prominent attorneys then stepped in to quietly cut checks to help fund Atlanta Legal Aid’s work. Did that development surprise you?
David: From my vantage point, that’s one of the most hopeful things in the documentary. Private lawyers created Atlanta Legal Aid in 1924, and these were same people who stepped in when federal funding was cut. A lot of people will be surprised that this organization wasn’t started by a liberal think tank. It was a group of lawyers of all political persuasions saying, “This is a need and as part of our duty and our privilege of being a lawyer, it’s up to us to do something about this.” The overwhelming bipartisan support of Atlanta Legal Aid in this very partisan age is what is surprising and encouraging to me.
One of the most nail-gnawing sequences in the doc details the race against time Atlanta Legal Aid lawyers had in January 2010, when they were trying to secure a heart transplant for an infant at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. An indigent mother had to sign over custodial rights to a grandmother, and a father had to sign legal papers from prison—all while a snowstorm was rolling into the city. As filmmakers did you get excited a year later when you had the task of recreating this scene and another snowstorm was set to hit Atlanta?
John: Dad is always excited when he hears about snow in the forecast!
David: We do a lot of public television films, and I’m always ready to capture a snowfall to use as footage in our projects. The timing of this year’s snow just when we needed it to illustrate this story was fortuitous.
One of the biggest headline-grabbing stories in the Atlanta Legal Aid story is their representation of thousands of Cuban detainees who came to the U.S. in the early 1980s seeking asylum and ended up being housed at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for seven years until they rioted and took hostages amid deportation rumors. How was it to shed fresh light and provide an illuminating through-line on that case for viewers?
David: I was here and followed that story when it happened. But at the time, my impression was “It’s a complicated issue, but we probably don’t want to let criminals Fidel Castro is trying to get rid of loose in our city.” Like most people, I had no idea some of these people had been locked up for [seven] years without due process. I would riot too! I lived through it and never realized any of that. To discover that during our research alarmed me about me.
John: It taught me how an incredible story like that can get buried in history, due to news cycles. TV news makes things flash points and then the attention goes elsewhere. Atlanta Legal Aid lawyers were dealing with residual issues from well into the 1990s. It’s work that goes on that no one ever hears about. It made me realize how short our attention spans are.
You’re both filmmakers, but you’re also father and son. How do those multiple dynamics play out in the workplace?
David: I’m going to let John field that one!
John: For twenty years, Dad’s primary business model has revolved around working with nonprofits. That was tremendously appealing to me. Occasionally, we’ll have our silly squabbles about things, but it works. It’s a great gig because I really want to be here doing this. I’m not doing it just because, and Dad doesn’t need me to be here just because. It’s something we’re both invested in. But to this day, I remain disgruntled about the nepotism of it all.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR OCTOBER 2011 ISSUE
Photograph courtesy of David Hughes Duke and John Duke