film by Joshua Mandell November 17, 2020
“In 1966, in Plaquemines Parish Louisiana, a 19-year-old Black teenager named Gary Duncan was arrested for touching a white boy’s arm. This is his story.”
These words open the film A Crime on the Bayou, the newest documentary from filmmaker Nancy Buirski. Buirski recently spoke to Kulture Hub to offer comments on her latest film.
The camera drifts placidly through a bayou, just below the water as rays of sunlight shine down, until a quote from Tolstoy’s War and Peace appears:
“Since corrupt people unite among themselves to constitute a force, honest people must do the same.”
This leads into the first interview clip. Gary Duncan, who was arrested for trying to prevent a fight, tearfully remembers what happened to him years before. A fisherman from Plaquemines Parish, Duncan was falsely accused of a violent crime. And then targeted for punishment by the state as an example.
If that were all there was to his story, it would be far from unique – just another abuse of justice. But Duncan stood up for himself and, eventually, went to the Supreme Court. In fact, it was his appeal against the state of Louisiana which created the precedent that U.S. states must honor requests for jury trials.
In the 1960’s, white supremacist and political boss Leander Perez controlled the parish. Perez was notorious for his segregationist policies and also his political misconduct.
In 1962, he joined in a high-profile protest against the desegregation of public schools, and ended up on the front page of the New York Times. Perez wanted to make sure the parish’s Black residents remained an underclass.
Thus the legal vendetta he waged against Gary Duncan was just one example of how he tried to keep his idea of the “proper order” in place.
Gary Duncan was far from the first to be arrested and used as an example. “It wasn’t just Gary who suffered that way,” Nancy Buirski, the filmmaker, told Kulture Hub.
But “Gary had a very unique response to his arrest. His arrest was basically a way of putting African Americans in that area on notice.”
As Buirski tells it, “He was unique in his ability to stand up to it. And that’s probably the thing that moved me the most. His incredible fortitude, and his commitment to fighting the system that was oppressing him.”
The more Gary Duncan fought, the more Perez – and the racist judges and officials he appointed – tried to punish him. Furthermore, the white boy whose arm he touched accused Duncan of battery. But despite the local court being clearly against him, he refused to plead guilty.
Each time Duncan and the lawyer representing him found a way out, Duncan would be arrested again days later. Perez also tried to strong-arm the lawyer, Richard Sobol, who came from the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee.
Sobol worked as a civil rights lawyer at the height of Louisiana’s civil rights movement, often despite threats on his life such as those made by Leander Perez. Sobol too was interviewed for Crime on the Bayou, but unfortunately passed away earlier this year.
The story of Gary Duncan and Richard Sobol, to hear them both tell it in the film, is one of a lifelong friendship that began with injustice. The legal fight from Plaquemines Parish all the way up to the US Supreme Court is chronicled in the book Deep Delta Justice by Matthew Van Meter. The idea for the book came to Buirski and she decided to work on a film covering the same story.
“I was really taken with how it seemed to pull together so many of the themes that I had been dealing with in my other two films on racial justice.”Nancy Buirski
Buirski’s previous films are The Loving Story and The Rape of Recy Taylor. All three films follow people who faced racism and social injustice, and all three films dealt with the law and the politics behind legal processes.
“So many people who stood up for their rights…” pauses Buirski, “they were not trying to change history, they were not activists. They were suffering through oppression, and systemic injustice, and racism, and they decided they were going to fight back.”
Although it may not have been the intent of these people, they did change history. The law was used as a weapon against each of the subjects of Buirski’s documentaries. And their fighting back eventually caused the law to change.
In speaking with Kulture Hub, Buirski described Gary Duncan as a hero. After all, Duncan standing up for his rights helped him get justice, but also helped countless others to this day due to the case’s legal legacy.
Buirski’s film highlights multiple civil rights lawyers involved in and adjacent to Duncan’s case, which helps contextualize both how a white supremacist like Leander Perez maintained his power and how more justice-minded lawyers were able to create change.
Lolis Elie is another late civil rights lawyer whose son is interviewed in the film. She was instrumental in a lawsuit against Louisiana’s ban on out-of-state lawyers representing defendants. Elie himself was a victim of Louisiana’s segregationist policies growing up.
A comment in A Crime on the Bayou by Armand Derfner is revealing of the situation in the Parish before Duncan’s appeal: “There was a system of pretend law… which they could keep up as long as they weren’t scrutinized by the outside world.”
It was bringing the injustice to light which ultimately led to change. One take-away from the story, then, is that injustice thrives when it remains unknown and unexamined.
When it is brought to the attention of the masses, it is rooted out. This is one of the themes also carried over from Buirski’s other films, and she told Kulture Hub:
“One of the other themes that comes out in the movie that was important to me was the sense that people come together and they work together to try and change things. You see that, particularly The Loving Story. You see it with Recy Taylor, where Rosa Parks comes to her aid, and helps her fight the deal with the court. And you especially see it in Richard Sobol and Gary Duncan, who did remain close friends up until Sobol’s death.”Nancy Buirski
That friendship is another aspect of the story Buirski emphasizes. Along with the interview footage, photos, newspaper shots, she also weaves footage from the modern day of Sobol and Duncan together.
The film even includes a shot of Duncan, Sobol, and Duncan’s family at a crayfish dinner that, Buirski says, “Gary insisted on hosting for us at the end of the movie… Gary eating crayfish with his sisters and brothers.”
Gary Duncan is the youngest of eight siblings. As Buirski says, “they are a very, very close knit family, and they’re thriving” – perhaps a heartwarming family scene like this really is the ideal end to a film about standing up against injustice.