Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 20, 2021

A Crime on the Bayou

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Civil Rights movement,Film — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

I came a bit late to the documentary “A Crime on the Bayou” that opened on Friday at the Quad Cinema in NY and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. Since I am so used to “virtual cinema”, I assumed that this would be available as VOD just like every other film I’ve reviewed during the pandemic. As it happens, this is only being shown in the physical theaters and well worth your time, especially if you’ve been vaccinated (what are you waiting for?) 

Written and directed by Nancy Buirski, it tells  the story of Gary Duncan, a Black teenager from Plaquemines Parish, a sleepy strip of land south of New Orleans. For Blacks, this is about as oppressive an area as any in the Deep South since the long-time political boss was one Leander Perez, a Democrat who made Donald Trump sound like a Critical Race Theory advocate. He once said, “Do you know what the Negro is? Animal right out of the jungle. Passion. Welfare. Easy life. That’s the Negro.”

In 1966, the local high school was forced to integrate. Duncan’s nephew and cousin were harassed from day one once they started school. Nineteen at the time, Duncan noticed some sort of fracas on the sidewalk near the school with white teens lined up against the two boys. He stopped his car and walked over to calm things down. This involved laying his hand on a white boy’s arm.

That night, police came to Duncan’s trailer and arrested him for simple battery on a minor, misdemeanor under Louisiana law that does not require a jury trial. He was convicted and received a 60-day prison sentence and a fine of $150—all for touching a white boy’s arm. By 1966, there was an open battle for overcoming Jim Crow laws throughout the south and Duncan found himself allied with Richard Sobol, a liberal Jewish lawyer from New York like many who threw themselves into the civil rights movement. White southerners tended to see them as they saw the Carpetbaggers during Reconstruction. The term Carpetbaggers was a slander since the overwhelming majority of northerners were idealistic, like sixty men from the North, including educated free blacks and slaves who had escaped to the North and returned South after the war to be elected as Republicans to Congress. Also, the majority of Republican governors in the South during Reconstruction came down from the North.

Clearly, men like Leander Perez feared a second coming of Reconstruction and fought tooth and nail to intimidate Blacks in his parish as well as their white allies. He tried to control their activities by prohibiting outsiders from entering Plaquemines Parish via the bayou ferries, which were the chief way to cross rivers and enter the jurisdiction.

Sobol’s goal was to make jury trials mandatory, whatever the offense. When a judge had the power to decide who was guilty or not and then hand down the sentence, it put men and women like Gary Duncan at a disadvantage. Even if there were racists on a jury, the precedent for jury trials had to be established so that in the future a jury of one’s peers would be a safeguard against racist frameups.

Sobol was a dedicated and highly capable lawyer who fought to bring the case for trial by jury to the Supreme Court. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favor of Duncan by arguing that the right to a jury trial in criminal cases was fundamental and central to the American conception of justice. Charges were dropped against him and he became a respected civil rights advocate in the parish as well as chairman of the fishing council.

Duncan is still going strong and the documentary benefits from his presence. Although Sobol died last year, there are many excerpts from interviews he gave over the years that help to establish his commitment to Black rights.

While nobody would have ever disqualified him from serving as Duncan’s attorney as if he were a latter-day Carpetbagger, Nancy Buirski cannot help but wondering about the relationship between powerful whites like Richard Sobol and their frequently poor and vulnerable clients. In the press notes, she writes:

As a filmmaker I’ve been engaged in exploring racist assumptions and dismantling them through storytelling. It’s been my privilege to do so; a responsibility I take seriously as a white filmmaker complicit with these acts. It is not just the acceptance of a racist legacy but a recognition of the small and big ways whites reenact aggressions today, unconsciously and otherwise.

There’s an important debate around allyship in the midst of the BLM movement. I’ve looked back over my last three films in this space and hope that they’ve helped culturally. Should they have been made by a white filmmaker – that is an open and lingering question. Do white filmmakers bring worthwhile perspectives in spite of not living the experience of BIPOC or do they simply occupy space and funding that should go to Black filmmakers? Are we allies in a change movement or obstacles?

For me, these questions are secondary when it comes to BLM since the most prominent lawyers involved with prosecuting killer cops happen to be Black. Instead, I see the charges that BLM is a tool of big corporations using their donations to burnish their image as much more important since it allows people like Adolph Reed Jr. to demonize the movement.

I strongly recommend “A Crime on the Bayou” to my readers since the story it tells is about a key moment in the fight against Jim Crow, and it tells it well as the 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes would indicate. Plus, it will be a great opportunity to enjoy your post-vaccination freedom and one far more worthwhile than hanging out in a sports bar.

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