'A Crime on the Bayou': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

A Crime on the Bayou
Augusta Films
An eye-opening, if choppy, account of unsung heroes.

Documentarian Nancy Buirski profiles the Black fisherman who stood up to a notorious political boss in 1960s Louisiana, and the white attorney who took his landmark case to the Supreme Court.

When Gary Duncan was arrested on trumped-up charges, essentially for being Black, his situation was hardly unique. But his readiness to fight the bogus case was nothing short of heroic, especially in 1966 Plaquemines Parish, near New Orleans, part of a region that one of the interviewees in Nancy Buirski's film calls a "totalitarian nation."

The word "totalitarian" is uttered several times in A Crime on the Bayou, and on the evidence of this real-life drama, it isn't hyperbole. The Deep South's Jim Crow legal system was openly racist and tyrannical, and anyone who dared to point that out was sure to suffer.

Choppily told but thoughtful and illuminating, writer-director Buirski's latest film completes a trilogy about the civil rights era, begun with The Loving Story and The Rape of Recy Taylor, that showcases lesser-known warriors for civil rights. Here she focuses on two figures, Duncan and Richard Sobol, the young white Northerner who defended him in court. As it explores the brutality of bigotry and touches on the complexities of allyship, the documentary moves between new interviews and archival material, not always smoothly. Certain aesthetic choices can feel distracting rather than meaningful, particularly the use of extreme close-ups for some interview subjects while engaging with others from a less intrusive distance. Even so, Crime shines a light on a groundbreaking piece of recent American history that will be news to many viewers.

Through new imagery, excerpts from Robert Flaherty's 1948 Louisiana Story and footage of 1965's Hurricane Betsy, Buirski conjures a strong sense of place. As to the emotional place, and the day-to-day reality of living under the thumb of vicious segregationists like political boss Leander Perez, her film offers plenty of firsthand testimony, as well as the commentary of artists: a canvas by Herbert Singleton, lines from a poem by Claude McKay.

Duncan was a 19-year-old shrimp trawler when, on his way to pick up his wife and their newborn from the hospital, he noticed a tense situation outside the public high school. The scene centered on his nephew and cousin, among the first Black students to attend the newly desegregated school. (As to the kind of courage this required, Buirski presents affecting footage of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by federal marshals into a New Orleans school in 1960.)

The two teens were surrounded by white boys, a fight brewing. According to them and Duncan, he tried to defuse the situation and, while talking to the white teens, touched one of them on the arm in a conciliatory gesture. Within hours he was arrested for "cruelty to a juvenile," a charge that didn't hold. So the Leander Perez machine tried another, assault and battery, despite the lack of evidence that anyone was injured. Then Duncan was denied a trial by jury.

The cigar-chomping Perez had ruled the parish since 1924. He would die in 1969, less than three months after the Supreme Court found for Duncan in Duncan v. Louisiana. In clips Perez talks about defending "our schools" — meaning segregated public schools — and pontificates on the innate immorality of Black people and how the thickness of their craniums limits the size of their brains. "I'm not a bigot," he attempts to assure Firing Line's William Buckley and a snickering studio audience.

Like many idealistic young attorneys of the period, the New York-raised Sobol, who died in March, spent vacation time working in the South. Unlike many, he stayed. In Plaquemines Parish, the New York native felt a sense of purpose and, eventually, the sting of Perez's virulent anti-Semitism.

Physically frail but with memories undimmed, he appears in a new conversation for the film, which also excerpts a 2011 interview for the Library of Congress. He was 29 when he argued Duncan's case successfully before the Supreme Court, the ruling establishing something that most of us today take for granted: The right to a jury trial in criminal prosecutions applies to state as well as federal cases. Buirski includes audio from the high-court hearing, some of it jaw-dropping; for the local trials that preceded it, voice actors bring portions of the testimony to life.

As it tells this important story, A Crime on the Bayou sometimes unfolds as a collection of related pieces rather than a flowing narrative. This is especially so when it addresses allyship, its array of observations emphasizing the difference between the danger that Sobol faced and the danger that Duncan lived with. Most incisive, though, is a general comment on the matter from Angela Davis, seen in a 2017 clip: "I have an ambivalent relationship to the term 'allies,' " the renowned activist says, "because when it comes to challenging racism, I think white people should know that they have as much at stake as the people who are the immediate targets."

The film pays tribute to a generation of white attorneys devoted to social justice, including interviewee Armand Derfner. Perhaps its most intriguing aspect, and one that could be the focus of another film, is the story of Collins, Douglas & Elie, a Black law firm in New Orleans specializing in civil rights cases. Two of the attorneys' sons, Lolis Eric Elie and Robert A. Collins, offer a bracing sense of legacy and perspective. As to "The Talk" that many Black parents have with their children regarding the perils of racism, Elie notes that he experienced no such clearly defined rite-of-passage conversation: "We were having that talk all the time."

Duncan himself can at times seem like the least part of this multifaceted story, with its web of advocates. That would hardly place him alone among defendants in landmark cases. But his gentleness and compassion come through, along with the pain he still feels over events that shook his and his family's lives more than a half-century ago. The camera holds no one in its gaze more tightly than Duncan, releasing that grip only in the film's final passages, which bring his story, and his friendship with Sobol, up to date. Describing that friendship, Duncan refers to "Mr. Sobol"; whether he addressed him more familiarly in private remains a question.

The doc might have explored the two men's bond in more detail, but through their separate recollections they paint a larger picture, and one that's still painfully pertinent. The story of Gary Duncan and Richard Sobol is one that has played out, in endless variations, across the United States, and across the decades. As one of Buirski's well-chosen interview subjects notes, totalitarian oppression arises not from predictability but from an "arbitrary nature … You never know when you've crossed the line."

Venue: DOC NYC (Investigations)
Production companies: Augusta Films, Get Lifted Film Company, Artemis Rising Foundation
Director-screenwriter: Nancy Buirski
Inspired by
Deep Delta Justice by Matthew Van Meter
Producers: Nancy Buirski, Susan Margolin, Claire L. Chandler
Executive producers: Regina K. Scully, John Legend, Ty Stiklorius, Michael Jackson, Austyn Biggers, Geralyn Dreyfous, Harlene Freezer, Rev. Derrick Harkins, Brenda Robinson, Amy Tiemann, Mark Trustin
Co-producer: Vanessa Martino
Archival producer: Hannah Shepard
Director of photography: Rex Miller
Editor: Anthony Ripoli
Sales: ICM Partners

90 minutes