A CRIME ON THE BAYOU (doc, 2020)

November 19, 2020

 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.

 


LOVING (2016)

November 12, 2016

loving Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine you are sound asleep in bed with your significant other. It’s the middle of the night. Suddenly, the sheriff and his deputies crash through your bedroom door with pistols drawn and flashlights blinding you. You are both taken into custody. For most of us, this would be a terrible nightmare. For Mildred and Richard Loving, it was their reality in June of 1958. Their crime was not drug-dealing, child pornography, or treason. Their crime was marriage. Interracial marriage.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) proves again he has a distinct feel and sensitivity for the southern way. There is nothing showy about his style, and in fact, his storytelling is at its most effective in the small, intimate moments … he goes quiet where other filmmakers would go big. Rather than an overwrought political statement, Nichols keeps the focus on two people just trying to live their life together.

Joel Edgerton plays Richard Loving, a bricklayer and man of few words. Ruth Negga plays Mildred, a quietly wise and observant woman. Both are outstanding in delivering understated and sincere performances (expect Oscar chatter for Ms. Negga). These are country folks caught up in Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, though as Richard says, “we aren’t bothering anyone”. The counterpoint comes from the local Sheriff (an intimidating Martin Csokas) and the presiding Judge Bazile (David Jensen) who claim to be enforcing “God’s Law”.

Nichols never strays far from the 2011 documentary The Loving Story from Nancy Buirski, who is a producer on this film. When the ACLU-assigned young (and green) lawyer Bernard Cohen (played with a dose of goofiness by Nick Kroll) gets involved, we see how the case hinges on public perception and changing social mores. Michael Shannon appears as the Life Magazine photographer who shot the iconic images of the couple at home … a spread that presented the Lovings not as an interracial couple, but rather as simply a normal married couple raising their kids.

In 1967, the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, unanimously held Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” as unconstitutional, putting an end to all miscegenation laws (interracial marriage was still illegal in 15 states at the time). In keeping with the film’s direct approach, the Supreme Court case lacks any of the usual courtroom theatrics and is capped with a quietly received phone call to Mildred.

Beautiful camera work from cinematographer Adam Stone complements the spot on setting, costumes and cars which capture the look and feel of the era (over a 10 year period). Nichols forsakes the crowd-rallying moments or even the police brutality of today’s headlines, but that doesn’t mean there is any shortage of paranoia or constant concern. We feel the strain through these genuine people as though we are there with them. The simplicity of Richard and Mildred belies the complexity of the issue, and is summed up through the words of Mildred, “He took care of me.”

Watch the trailer: