The documentary “A Crime in the Bayou” concerns a similar incident down in 1966 Louisiana, in which young white boys leaving a recently desegregated school taunted their black peers. Gary Duncan, an elder relative of two of the black boys, attempted to diffuse the situation and ended up on trial for assault simply by patting one of the white boys on the shoulder. The legal saga that ensued eventually put longstanding wrongs of Southern justice on trial.
Filmmaker Nancy Buirski has an elegant, judicious way of imparting the facts of the case, taking not just the political temperature of the moment (boiling) but finely sketching the character and minds of the people involved. Having made two other acclaimed films on landmark civil rights cases, “The Loving Story” and “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” she’s got it down: people and relationships are paramount. A profound legacy, the friendship between Duncan and his young Jewish attorney, Richard Sobol, eventually rivals the outcome of their case.
Duncan’s bond with Sobol is a study in moral brotherhood. Sobol could have settled into a comfortable career at Washington D.C.’s prestigious “cause work” firm, Arnold, Fortis and Porter, but when Fortis turned out to prioritize money over cause, Arnold proved racist and Porter a drunk, he sought mentorship in the civil rights movement proper. The Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC) sent him to Louisiana to handle various cases, including Duncan’s. His commitment to the dangerous work was as rare as Duncan’s decision to plead not guilty. As Solis puts it, Duncan could have spared himself extensive jail time by pleading guilty, “but he chose not to. I don’t think there’s one in a hundred people who would make that choice. The guy is of steel about his rights.”
Duncan tells us where the steel comes from: “I thank god I had the parents that I had,” he says now, “because me, I probably would have just went up there and pled guilty, figured I’d pay a fine and go on about my business.”
Both young men would pay the price in jail time but would not submit.
The antagonist is just as vividly drawn. Leander Perez, the Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana District Attorney and power broker who fought like hell to deny Duncan justice at every turn, emerges as more than just a segregationist megalomaniac; his corruption oozes in every direction, from election fraud to embezzlement to illegal land deals. Footage of Perez in his white suits and Stetsons, removing a fat cigar from his lips only to passionately defy desegregation or slander the Jews, plays like something from a Stanley Kramer message film of the era. Perez’s “scientific” theories on black inferiority are pitiful comedy—Boss Hogg with a thesaurus. Thinking of James Baldwin’s warning about similar characters in Kramer’s fictional “In the Heat of the Night,” my laughter died quickly: The blinkered racists of that film “can be considered moving and pathetic only if one has the luxury of the assurance that one will never be at their mercy.”
Source – www.rogerebert.com