What happens when a career civil rights attorney becomes the most powerful prosecutor in the city?
This is the question that is explored in Philly D.A., the new documentary miniseries by Independent Lens. The series, which is currently airing Tuesdays on PBS, recounts the election and first two years in office of the firebrand Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, who took over in January 2018.
The viewer first encounters Krasner as a self-styled public voice for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. According to the documentary, Krasner decided to leave his thirty-year career as a defender in order to “end mass incarceration in Philadelphia” by running to be its top prosecutor. His approach, like other progressive D.A.s we meet in the series, is to reform the system from within by kicking cash bail and using the office’s discretionary powers to choose not to charge the low-level crimes that his predecessors once did.
Clips of Krasner on the district attorney campaign trail are spliced together with footage of him as a young attorney attending protests and announcing lawsuits against the Philadelphia Police Department. These montage segments also feature plenty of cutaways to former colleagues describing their shock when they first heard their friend was running for the most powerful position in law enforcement. “When I heard he was running,” says one colleague, “I told Larry that he would become the D.A. when [David] Duke becomes head of the ACLU.”
As the filmmakers flesh out Krasner’s background as an anti-establishment civil rights attorney, they offer a more intimate portrait of him in the days immediately leading up to and following his election. The viewer is given a picture of a lifelong activist who is as filled as ever with righteous fury. But now, he’s tasked himself with changing “the system” from within. Along the way, his abrasive style both wins him supporters and alienates those on whom he will have to rely if he wishes to be effective.
In these moments, we see an individual who is just that—an individual—with unique flaws, strengths, and shortcomings. Having railed against The Man for so long, he discovers that many of the traits that made him an effective defender of social justice (like his self-described taste for confrontation) are now making it difficult to navigate the complex political world of one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the country.
The eight-episode series follows Krasner and his new hires through several ideological clashes with the old guard. These clashes often take place in the office, where shouting matches over juvenile justice and cash bail appear common. The more public clashes, though, are with the Fraternal Order of Police. The F.O.P. puts Krasner’s anti-death penalty commitments to the test as they seek capital punishment for the killers of an officer in a 2015 robbery-turned-homicide. Then, when Krasner pursues charges against an officer for the 2017 killing of an unarmed black man, another showdown with the F.O.P. ensues.
Though the tone of the show is ultimately hopeful, it is unflinching in presenting the pitfalls of replacing bureaucrats with idealists. In some scenes, a member of Krasner’s new guard will put a career technocrat to shame by pointing out their complicity in human suffering, only to betray a lack of practical alternative ideas just moments later. At other times, we see Krasner completely whiff softball questions about victims’ rights in favor of truly vague answers about “the system.”
The close-up of Krasner and his team is only the launch point for the show’s more important themes. The series offers an objective and personal lens into the effect of America’s ideological and culture wars on city government. And yet the producers of Philly D.A. know that there’s more at play here than simple culture war and identity politics. In its best moments, the series is teeming with tension between competing conceptions of justice and the flawed people who are tasked with its administration in a hurting city.
But no show is perfect, and Philly D.A. certainly falters in some places. Especially towards the end of the series, the diversity of perspectives seems to narrow and the quality of the journalism suffers. In the latter episodes, there are noticeably more brooding images of City Hall and inspiring montages of speeches given to starry-eyed interns.
On the whole, though, the series is well worth a watch. The creators seem to have a preternatural ability to be in the right place at the right time, which means the viewer is frequently given an inside look into high-stakes discussions about the justice system. These discussions are then placed effectively within a broader narrative about reform and the pitfalls of bureaucracy.
Philly D.A. is telling a story that is yet to be concluded—a story about city with a messy history of corruption and police violence and its activist D.A. who is trying to right more wrongs than he is probably capable of. Because of its admirable blend of complexity, restraint, and watchability, Philly D.A. is a success.
Pennsylvania’s primary elections will be held on Tuesday, May 18th. Larry Krasner faces a primary challenge from F.O.P.-backed Carlos Vega—one of the attorneys whom he fired back in 2018.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.