Combustible Celluloid
With: Gary Duncan, Richard Sobol, Lolis Eric Elie, Armand Derfner, Robert A. Collins
Written by: Nancy Buirski
Directed by: Nancy Buirski
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 89
Date: 06/18/2021

A Crime on the Bayou (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Doing Right By You

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Somewhat rambling and roundabout, the documentary A Crime on the Bayou nevertheless zeroes in on distinct heroes and villains, and contains a powerful, important story, the reverberations of which still linger today.

It's 1966 in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. A 19 year-old Black man, Gary Duncan, stops to break up a fight between some white students and his nephew and cousin outside a newly-integrated school. In the process, he touches a white boy's arm. He is arrested, for "assault," and will eventually wind up spending years fighting for his freedom. Civil rights lawyer Richard Sobol comes to his aid, and Sobol himself eventually winds up clashing with none other than the powerful "boss" Leander Perez, a deep-rooted racist who stops at nothing to enforce his will and retain his control over the region.

At the outset, A Crime on the Bayou promises that this is Gary Duncan's story, but Duncan — who is still alive and sat for interviews — only appears in a small fraction of the finished movie. His few scenes are amazingly effective, but he could have been a stronger and more emotional "character," especially given the deep friendship he formed with Sobol (a detail that is, mystifyingly, kept hidden until the end).

Apart from drifting into asides about Hurricane Betsy, clips from the great 1948 documentary Louisiana Story, and distracting music by Miles Davis, Randy Newman, and others, A Crime on the Bayou does land on some interesting discussions, especially by fellow Civil Rights lawyer Armand Derfner, even if they don't always relate to the matter at hand.

When focusing on Duncan, Sobol, and Perez, however, the doc has an undeniable pull; Sobol (who died in April of 2020 after completing his interviews) is a humble hero, while Perez (who died in 1969) is the vilest of villains. Directed by Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story), the movie's message of tolerance is righteously clear, and sadly timely.

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