“A Crime on the Bayou” – It’s everywhere [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“A Crime on the Bayou,” written and directed by Nancy Buirski, tells the story of an important miscarriage of justice and its long lasting influence.
Between 1924 and 1969 Plaquemines Parish, the swampy but oil rich marshland south of New Orleans, was ruled by Leander Perez, one of the leading segregationists and white supremacists of the twentieth century. Perez continued segregation of the parish schools past the federal mandate for integration. All prosecutions were tried according to his wishes and outcomes matched his dictates, especially if they involved black citizens within his parish. He was unapologetic and vengeful, often taking his point of view to the national air waves, public opinion be damned.
In 1966, shortly after the parish schools were nominally integrated, 19 year-old African American Gary Duncan was arrested for putting his hand on a white boy who was harassing Duncan’s younger brother and friends; he was trying to diffuse a hostile situation. The police called it battery and threw him in jail. With Perez pulling the strings, Duncan was given the opportunity to plead guilty and be released but he was unwilling to do so because he had not assaulted that boy. He was found guilty by the judge and sentenced to 60 days and given a steep fine. Duncan’s case was brought to the attention of Richard Sobol, a New York lawyer who was spending his vacation volunteering at a civil rights organization in Louisiana.
Sobol challenged the verdict and demanded a jury trial, which the judge refused to grant. Instead the judge found Duncan guilty again and sentenced him to 60 days. Although there would be a merry-go-round of appeals in which Duncan was released and tried again, always with the same result, the real issue was the denial of a trial by jury. The Seventh Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial. The state of Louisiana (and many other states) did not. This was a state case and not a federal one.
State vs. Federal law had most recently come in to contention when the Supreme Court ruled that all defendants are entitled to counsel and if they cannot afford one then the court will appoint one. In this instance, as will have been similar in the Duncan case, many States were in opposition to Federal law as stated in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees due process. Sobol felt that there was something similar at stake in the right to a jury trial.
For two years, as Duncan seesawed in and out of jail, always on the same charges, Sobol appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Earl Warren’s court unanimously decreed that a jury trial is guaranteed regardless of jurisdiction. Sobol continued in civil rights law for the rest of his career. He and Duncan remained friends and saw each other periodically over the years.
This story definitely deserved telling. The difficulty Buirski has is concentrating on the central core. Instead she seems to want to tell the whole story of civil rights movement, intercutting unrelated (but significant) episodes with the task at hand. If, instead, she had concentrated on two interesting and interrelated stories, she would have had a compelling and outstanding documentary.
She gives the viewer a brief history of Leander Perez, a miniature Huey Long, who kept an iron grip on all things Plaquemines. His segregation policies were notorious and his willingness to expound on his philosophy revealed the innerworkings of a major sociopath. That criminal prosecutions were resolved according to his dictates to his appointed judges is horrifying and worth exploring. The story of Leander Perez and the human damage he wrought was enough added value to the massive changes brought about because he personally wanted Duncan arrested to make a point.
Buirski is an experienced civil rights documentarian. Her previous two films, “Loving,” and “The Rape of Recy Taylor” were justifiably award-winning. “Loving” was also about a Supreme Court case that changed state miscegenation laws. In both cases, she stayed on point and was more disciplined about establishing context.
It is not that Buirski doesn’t have a compelling story to tell or that the messy tendrils of context are uninteresting. It is simply that she lets her film get away from her, leaving the viewer a bit confused.
Nevertheless, this is a film that is worthwhile viewing. The only regret is that it could have been so much better and been a more worthy addition to her previous two films.
Opening as part of DOC NYC 2020 on November 11 at virtual cinemas. Go to the DOC NYC website for ticket information or click on the following to purchase tickets: http://Get Your Ticket Here!