Friday, June 25, 2021

'A Crime on the Bayou' Spawns a Friendship Forged in the Murky and Treacherous Waters of 'Justice,' Southern-Style ' (Louisiana)


is a documentary that might be better titled "Crimes on the Bayou."

Nominally, it is about Gary Duncan, a young black man in late-1960s South Louisiana trying to prove himself innocent of trumped-up battery charges. Nancy Buirski's film is currently playing in select theaters in the United States.

But there are numerous crimes on the bayou:
1. The father of Herman Landry, one of the white boys, falsely accusing Duncan of slapping his son on the elbow
2. The false charges Landry’s father filed with police against Duncan
3. The refusal of police to believe Duncan in taking the word of white folk over black folk, resulting in his arrest on a battery charge
4. Landry and his friends lying in court testimony about what happened
5. The repeated arrests of Duncan for this alleged crime after being exonerated through appeals
6. The bald-faced conflict of interest of the judge in Duncan’s case
7. The arrest of Duncan’s D.C.-based attorney, Richard Sobol, for practicing law without a license and so on …

Gary Duncan in 1967.

The nasty business chronicled in “A Crime on the Bayou” all went down in 1966 around the time of the federally ordered desegregation of the schools in Plaquemines Parish, a coastal area south of New Orleans, situated near where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. Both area overlord Leander Perez and a significant number of white parents were staunch segregationists.

Anywho, apparently one day after school, two of Duncan’s cousins were about to get involved in fisticuffs with some white boys. Duncan happened to be passing by. Seeing what was soon to be going down, he approached the group to break it up. In his peacemaking attempt, Duncan touched the arm of Landry. Then it was ON!

Circa 1960s Louisiana, if a white person said a black person committed a crime, that was that. If you were said black person, you could protest your innocence until you were red or purple in the face. With a thousand proofs. It didn't matter. You were guilty and you were going to pay.

Thus began the shit show of justice not at all atypical in the South at the time. Many men like Perez, who was the power behind Duncan's troubles, ruled with ironfist ruthlessness. The type was famously and uproariously lampooned in the character of Boss Hogg in the wildly popular comedy-action series, "The Dukes of Hazzard" (1979-1985).

Court drawing of witness in Gary Duncn trial.

In recounting the valiant fight for justice of Duncan and Sobol in “A Crime on the Bayou,” Buirski cleverly uses scenes of the bayou with moss from trees hanging so low that they meet the inky waters to dramatize the proceedings. Documentarians are forced to do so, lest they are too often left with a barrage of yawn-inducing talking heads.

Of course, there are talking heads: Duncan, Sobol (he died in 2020), the son of one of Sobol’s associates on the Duncan case, a cause celebre in Louisiana. In fact, Duncan’s case (Duncan v. Louisiana; right to a jury trial in state criminal cases) would be argued in the U.S. Supreme Court. He won.

Buirski also cleverly uses voice actors to read from the actual court proceedings. This not only further dramatizes “A Crime on the Bayou,” it makes it far more engaging than it would otherwise be. And, of course, there is the standard archival footage one expects to see in a documentary of this type: myriad photos of relevant people, places and things.

“A Crime on the Bayou,” though, is not without its lapses. As dramatic as the bayou scenes are, they are a bit overdone. That is a minor quibble. The absence of any perspective from the “antagonist” side (spokespersons for Perez’s family, Landry's family, family of the then-chief of police or sheriff) is not. It leaves a gaping hole because the viewer only gets one side of the story. Did Buirski attempt to reach any of their relatives/surrogates? There is no mention of it.

Another lost opportunity is Buirski’s failure to show the friendship that developed between Duncan and Sobol. It is mentioned almost as an aside near the end of the film. Further, the director draws a much richer picture of Sobol (He would become a noted Civil Rights attorney.) than she does of Duncan.

Mugshot of Richard Sobol. Photo courtesy of Richard Sobol estate.

The latter is still alive and would become a seemingly prosperous fisherman, seafood being a major industry in the area. However, this is only tangentially mentioned toward the end of the film. Here was a huge opportunity lost in not showing over the course of the documentary the trajectory of Duncan’s life from young man falsely accused to a solid, respected citizen who has thrived despite what must have been a traumatizing experience.

Those major shortcomings notwithstanding, “A Crime on the Bayou” is an important story – in fact one of a trilogy detailing Civil Rights-era cases – and deserves an audience.

"A Crime on the Bayou" is not rated. Visit the following websites to learn more about the film:

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