Nancy Buirski’s must-see documentary, A Crime on the Bayou, focuses on an incident that happened in 1966 but is, infuriatingly, still timely and relevant more than half a century later.
In Plaquemines Parish, described as “a swampy strip of land south of New Orleans,” Gary Duncan, a 19-year-old Black fisherman, was arrested for TOUCHING A WHITE BOY’S ELBOW while quietly trying to defuse a fight between white and Black teens at a newly integrated school.
But the crime in the film’s title is not what Duncan did – which, needless to say, was not a crime. The crime is what was done to him.
Duncan was officially charged with “cruelty to a juvenile” and, when that was thrown out, he was re-arrested and charged with “simple battery.”
Why? Well, Plaquemines Parish was run by Leander Perez, who had a point to prove. A proud white supremacist, he might as well have been wearing a white hood as he explained that the thickness of Black people’s craniums limits the size of their brain, rendering them inferior. You will feel like punching the TV as he pontificates on this racist crap to William Buckley on Firing Line, ending by assuring the audience, “I’m not a bigot.”
Used to jailing Black people simply for existing, Perez’ worst nightmare came true when Duncan decided to fight back with the help of a young Jewish lawyer. Richard Sobol took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in a landmark ruling for Duncan and the Civil Rights Movement.
Although Buirski grounds her film in Duncan’s story, the documentary is really about systemic racism as well as a tribute to the brave activists fighting to change it.
And that’s why it should be required viewing.
“There’s been an awakening among Americans about how very precarious our rights are,” says writer/filmmaker Lolis Eric Earle, son of civil rights pioneer, Lolis Earle. “We find folks are rallying to defend those things we thought were emblazoned not only in our Constitutional documents but also in the hearts of Americans.”
A Crime on the Bayou makes it clear that rallying together and acting as advocates for each other is the only way change will happen. It also makes it clear that the system is not broken; it’s working exactly the way it was intended to – and that’s the problem.
Buirski widens her lens to offer historical perspective, featuring footage of important civil rights moments from Ruby Bridges to Black Lives Matter. Perhaps the words that viewers really need to internalize, though, are those of Angela Davis, who says, “I think that white people should know that they have as much of a stake in purging the society of racism as people who are the immediate targets.”
For example, right now, in Missouri, Kevin Strickland – a Black man – is still in prison, where he’s been locked up for more than 40 years for a triple murder that even prosecutors are admitting he didn’t commit. Yet, Republican Governor Mike Parson has left the bill that would release him unsigned on his desk for weeks.
Just call it A Crime in the Show Me State.