As a documentary, “A Crime on the Bayou,” directed by Nancy Buirski, is dryly told, but it has a potent idea, which is to show how even bureaucratic aspects of the legal system in the Deep South in the 1960s could be weaponized against Black Americans. To paraphrase Lolis Eric Elie, a son of a lawyer involved in the events in the film, part of what made Jim Crow totalitarian was its arbitrariness: A Black man never knew when he might suddenly be accused of a crime.
The supposed crime here occurred in 1966, when Gary Duncan, a 19-year-old fisherman in Plaquemines Parish, La., intervened in a potential skirmish between two of his young relatives, who were students at a newly integrated school, and a group of white boys whom the relatives thought were trying to start a fight. Duncan says he touched a white boy’s arm. For that, he was charged with simple battery. The case wound its way to the United States Supreme Court, where Duncan won a right to a jury trial not previously guaranteed in Louisiana’s state courts.
These events are recounted principally by Duncan himself and his lawyer, Richard Sobol, who died last year. Other major voices in the film are Elie and the civil rights lawyer Armand Derfner. Sobol, who was Jewish, recalls being targeted by Leander Perez, the parish’s racist and anti-Semitic political boss. And in covering the repercussions of the branching cases, “A Crime on the Bayou” shows how superficially straightforward, courageous acts — like refusing to plead guilty unjustly or defending the unjustly accused — are hard.
A Crime on the Bayou
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.
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