Greetings again from the darkness. Debates over whether ‘systemic racism’ exists are ongoing today. What can’t be denied is that it existed in 1966 when a young man was arrested for touching the arm of white boy while attempting to prevent a fight from breaking out at a recently-integrated high school. Director Nancy Buirski (producer on LOVING, 2016) chronicles this incredible story that reached the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in an unexpected lifelong friendship.
A Tolstoy quote kicks things off: “Since corrupt people unite amongst themselves to constitute a force, then honest people must do the same.” It’s a chilling quote and one that fits this story perfectly. Because of its Gulf coast location, Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana has been battered by numerous hurricanes over the years, and we see archival footage of the destruction caused by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The following year is when 19 year old Gary Duncan got out of his car to see why a couple of his cousins were being confronted by a group of white high school boys. As he diffused the situation, Duncan touched one of the white boys on the elbow … a simple act that resulted in him being arrested for cruelty to a juvenile. When the charge was dropped, a new charge of assault was immediately filed and Duncan was taken to jail.
Enter Richard Sobol, a young Jewish attorney, committed to justice and fairness under the law. To understand the impact of Mr. Sobol taking on Mr. Duncan’s case, one must first absorb the utterly fascinating (and disgusting) story of “Political Boss” Leander Perez. Director Buirski provides an overview of the tremendous power wielded by Perez in his more than 40 years controlling the area, but it would require a dedicated project to fully grasp the depths of his racism and corruption. A clip of Perez being chewed up by William F Buckley on “Firing Line” is plenty to establish his stature as a racist scumbag. Fortunately, more time is spent on the commitment and courage of Sobol and Duncan than on the despicable actions of Perez, although the result is a real life head-on collision between good and evil.
Included here are interviews with Sobol, Duncan, Civil Rights Attorney Armand Derfner, Civil Rights Attorney Lolis Elie, and Mr. Elie’s son, a writer and journalist. The court case segments are drawn directly from transcripts, and it’s interesting to learn that Mr. Duncan’s mother was a driving force in his continuing to fight. Director Buirski devotes an entire section to Mr. Sobol, and rightfully so. This is a piece of history that he and Gary Duncan share. The clips of Ruby Bridges and Angela Davis come across as a bit forced, but the ‘white people in control of black people’ era is itself maddening to watch.
Archival footage and photos and interviews blend together with an excellent use of music to paint a picture of the times. And hearing Mr. Sobol discuss being a 29 year old lawyer making his case to the US Supreme Court is inspirational. This is a true crime drama so ridiculous we can’t help but shake our heads. But the crime wasn’t the touch of the arm by Duncan. The crime was the environment created by the likes of Leander Perez. The epilogue tells us more of Perez’s story, and also that Duncan and Sobol remained friends long after their place in history was set.