It’s fair to say that divisions and racial tensions in America are every bit as palpable as they were back in 1966, the year Nancy Buirski’s documentary reflects upon. There might not be Jim Crow or (official) segregation, but there is George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. For all the marches, protests, sit-ins and trials, it would appear that the system remains broken and justice remains out of reach. A Crime on the Bayou explores this idea of rights, equality and fair treatment through the American court system, whilst highlighting lesser known Civil Rights cases.
Completing her trilogy of Civil Rights documentaries – The Loving Story and The Rape of Recy Taylor being the previous two stories – Buirski uses this film to focus on the trial of Gary Duncan and the subsequent persecution of his white, Jewish lawyer, Richard Sobol. It’s the deep south – Plaquemines Parish on the banks of the Mississippi – and it’s the height of the Civil Rights movement. Gary Duncan attempts to break up a fight between African-Americans and white men at a newly integrated school. Having placed his hand on a young white man’s arm in an effort to placate him, he finds himself vilified and harassed; arrested on trumped up charges of assaulting a minor.
Using readings of court transcripts, archival footage, interviews and photographs, Buirski attempts to piece together a rendering of a lesser known – but equally important – chapter in the Civil Rights movement, complete with heroes and villains and everything in between.
In his talking heads, Duncan never once hints at bitterness. His voice cracks here and there, as he recounts his mother’s fear of his facing prison time or when he speaks of the larger racial injustices in the south, but he never sounds vengeful or angry. He’s a gentle speaker, given to the occasional welling of tears or trembling bottom lip. His warmth and his quest for justice really draws you in to his story. Sobol, too, is a relatively mild-mannered presence. Whilst you can see his passion for equality and justice radiating from him, he doesn’t raise his voice or shake his fists. In fact, through archival footage and other talking heads, you can tell that – for the entirety of his career – Sobol has been quietly changing the world and calling out wrongs wherever he sees them.
In neat contrast, Buirski offers up the suited and snarling Leander Perez, a local judge in Plaquemines Parish, who freely gave speeches and TV interviews riddled with racial slurs, anti-Semitism and outright vitriol (all the while claiming not to be a bigot). He boasts of making powerful enemies and of ruling his patch of land like a totalitarian leader. Within every snippet of footage, he is fighting against integration and making horrific, sweeping generalisations about Black people.
The documentary also provides plenty of modern day comparisons. Hurricane Betsy exposed the poverty of the Black population living in New Orleans in 1965, just as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005. Images of white policemen pressing handcuffed Black men into the ground is all too similar to George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe.” Hoards of angry white men screaming and waving the Confederate flag could easily be the “Proud Boys” and their recent storming of the Capitol Building.
Despite the interesting story – Duncan’s trial was a farce and witnesses were essentially telling fairy stories on the stand – Buirski never quite hits the mark owing to the way the narrative is constructed. More than this, the easy listening jazz that flutters away throughout the film is really distracting – at times it really undercuts what is being said or revealed.
The footage and ‘storyline’ moves about too much – jumping from one trial to another; adding in more and more talking heads. Had the story remained contained to Duncan’s trial; his relationship with Sobol; and the pioneering African-American Civil Rights firm he worked with, it would have probably felt more intimate and personal. Although the wider context as to what was going on elsewhere in America and within the Civil Rights movement is useful, it does detract from Duncan and Sobol’s story and experiences, to some extent. It would have also been useful to understand what Duncan and Sobol thought of the aforementioned comparisons that the documentary clearly draws.
Whilst it is always interesting to have a light shone on lesser known moments in history, A Crime on the Bayou doesn’t quite deliver on the personal, intimate moments that you might hope for with Duncan’s story. Certainly, the revelations and racially charged narrative is no less shocking (and, indeed, Duncan’s entire case is just utterly rage-inducing). At times, the documentary does seem a little all over the place, but the modern day comparisons are clear and Duncan and Sobol’s quest for justice – no matter what threats they faced – is utterly inspiring.
A Crime on the Bayou opens in NYC, LA and Select Theatres Nationwide June 18, 2021