“Deadlocked” is nothing if not ambitious.
Nearly four hours long, the docu-series tells the sometimes inspiring, often infuriating history of the modern Supreme Court, beginning with the momentous years of the Warren Court — desegregating schools, legalizing interracial marriage — and wrapping up in June, around the time reports about luxury travel provided by wealthy Republican donors to Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito prompted a broader conversation about Supreme Court ethics.
By that time, the director Dawn Porter had been working on “Deadlocked” for three years, and as much as she would have liked to have included, say, something about Thomas’s private jet trips or Alito’s fishing vacation in Alaska, she knew she couldn’t.
“We had to end the series somewhere,” she said.
“Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court” premieres on Sept. 22 on Showtime and is the most expansive of Porter’s projects to date. Past Porter films have focused on single individuals at pivotal periods in history, like Pete Souza, the former White House photographer during the Reagan and Obama administrations (“The Way I See It”), and John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights leader (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”). Others have illuminated the lives of small groups of people working within political crucibles, like the abortion providers under siege in her 2016 film “Trapped.” Her films have won numerous awards, including a special jury prize at Sundance and a Peabody.
Porter’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble” tracked the activism and career of the civil rights leader and lawmaker.Credit…Spider Martin/Magnolia Pictures
“Deadlocked” dwarfs all of those in scale. Over four episodes, we learn about the Supreme Court justices, along with the presidents and politicians who helped get them there, and the history-altering laws they forged (and, in some cases, dismantled) during some of America’s most tumultuous eras.
Porter never intended to tell a story this big, at least not at first. A former lawyer, the director hoped to tell a straightforward account of how justices are confirmed. Indeed, for a while, the film was simply titled “Confirmation.”
“I thought, well, there have been all these interesting confirmations, and we’ll trace them over time,” Porter said, in a video interview from her home in West Tisbury, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard.
But that changed when the court’s conservative majority began making a series of decisions on divisive issues including abortion, gun rights and school prayer.
“I knew we had to do something bigger,” Porter said. “We needed to explain how the court had become so political.”
The shift held particular meaning for Porter, who graduated from Georgetown Law in 1993. “I lived on Capitol Hill on East Capitol Street and would walk in front of the Supreme Court every day on the way to school,” she said. “When you’re in front of that building, it reminds you of something great about our country. It reminds you that we have a fair judiciary.”
After serving five years as a corporate litigator, Porter was hired as director of standards and practices at ABC News. While there, she met the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”), whom she helped secure the rights to ABC footage crucial to his 2012 film “Best of Enemies.”
“She was an in-house lawyer, but she was very interested in documentary,” Neville recalled.
Soon Porter was making her own, first as an executive producer and then as the director of her first documentary feature, the Emmy-nominated “Gideon’s Army” (2013), about a group of three public defenders in the American South.
“Dawn’s very interested in questions about politics and law and power, and she’s really good at rooting those things in character,” Neville said. “It’s one thing to analyze the law, but ultimately it’s understanding the characters that helps you understand the law, and Dawn’s great at that.”
For “Deadlocked,” Porter sought out a range of interviewees from across the political spectrum. “I didn’t want it to feel like some liberal diatribe,” she said.
The result is a distinguished group of legal experts and insiders, including Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist; Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Berkeley, school of law; John Bash, a former law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia; and Theodore B. Olson, solicitor general under President George W. Bush.
“We kept adding voices to try to get a bit more editorial balance and perspective,” Porter said. “So we probably do have more voices than I’m used to.”
Even so, Porter knew complete objectivity would be neither possible for the series nor, for her, desirable. “I’ve made films about abortion activists,” she said. “The most important thing is to be transparent if you feel you have a bias or predilection for a certain outcome. So I tell people I’m pro-choice. I don’t pretend to an objectivity that I don’t have.”
Nor does she feel that audiences need to hear from both sides of every topic. “I think you can say certain things are true,” she said. “A president should not call for an insurrection. People should not be racist.”
The biggest challenge for Porter, she said, came from the justices themselves. “The justices would not speak to us,” she said. “And we wrote to them all.”
“I really thought that Justice Roberts might speak to us because he’s an institutionalist and he cares about the perception of the court,” she continued. “He’s a historian, so I was hopeful. But then, as we’ve all seen, the court’s reputation quickly came under assault by the time we knew what we were doing, so he respectfully declined an interview.” (A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article).
Stymied, Porter turned to the historical record to get a greater sense of how today’s court came to be. “There’s 200 minutes of archival footage, pictures and audio recordings in the series,” she said. “If you can’t get the individual to speak, the next best thing is hearing from the people who came before them.”
The highlights include footage of a youngish Senator Mitch McConnell in 1987 threatening to shoot down any future Democratic appointments in retaliation for the Senate’s rejection of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court; Jay Floyd, a Texas assistant attorney general, making a sexist joke about the two female attorneys arguing against him in Roe v. Wade; and Richard Nixon, post-Roe, describing when an abortion might be necessary. (For instance, “when you have a Black and a white.”)
“Sometimes it was horrifying to hear what people would say,” Porter said. “But in some ways, it was a relief. It was like, no, I didn’t make this up. This is what they really believe.”
Her interviewees were essential in decoding the often arcane workings of the court. “I was a litigator, so I did a lot of depositions,” she said. “Most people want to talk.”
That is not always the case, however. When Porter was making “The Way I See It,” her 2020 film about Pete Souza, the former White House photographer, her subject initially had no interest in being on the other side of a lens.
“The first thing Pete said to me was, ‘I’m not in it,” Porter said. But Souza said Porter soon put him at ease.
“She just has a way about her,” he said. “She asked me some very pointed questions, but she has a way of doing it in such a professional and easygoing way.”
Kim Reynolds, a producer of several of Porter’s films, said the filmmaker “has a way of getting people to let their guard down.”
“I remember when I first met her,” she continued, “I found myself telling her things I hadn’t really told other people.”
For “Deadlocked,” Porter talked to 30 interviewees in all. Though not interviewed, former President Donald Trump appears in footage and as a topic of discussion because of his extensive dealings with the court.
For example, Trump was prolific when it came to “emergency relief,” which are requests for justices to block undesirable lower-court rulings with unsigned and often unexplained orders — the so-called shadow docket — while cases work their way through the appeals process. Trump made 41 emergency relief requests, succeeding in 28. By comparison, “Deadlocked” notes, George W. Bush and Obama asked for emergency relief a total of eight times during their four collective terms.
Trump also inserted himself into the legal debate about Roe v. Wade, stating expressly that he would appoint only anti-abortion justices, and petitioned the court successfully to uphold his travel ban on Muslims entering the country.
“There were definitely a couple of films of mine where I was like, He’s not going to be in it,” Porter said. “In this film, though, we definitely couldn’t avoid that, because he is so central to the composition of this court.”
After three years of work that included several extensions, “Deadlocked” couldn’t be more timely, coming at a moment when the Supreme Court has been under intense scrutiny and when polls show public confidence in the institution at historic lows.
Porter, however, feels differently. “I actually have a lot of optimism,” she said. “I’ve seen so many examples in my work and in my life of people facing really difficult circumstances and prevailing that I’ll never give up on this court.
“I think if you care about democracy, you can’t give up on the Supreme Court. You have to care. You have to figure out how to make it what it should be.”