A Crime on the Bayou reconsiders the prosecution of Gary Duncan in a case that led to Supreme Court precedent

Gary Duncan
| Credit: Courtesy A Crime on the Bayou

"In 1966, in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a 19-year-old Black teenager named Gary Duncan was arrested for touching a white boy's arm. This is his story."

So begins the documentary film A Crime on the Bayou, a haunting examination of virulent racism in the Deep South and the institutions that upheld it. It is not a new story. Duncan's alleged crime, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 60 days in prison, led to Supreme Court precedent that upheld the right to a jury trial in state courts, where Duncan had been denied one by a local judge operating under the influence of a politically powerful white supremacist.

But by anchoring itself firmly in the bond between Duncan, now 72, and Richard Sobol, a white Jewish lawyer from up north who picked up Duncan's case at a time and place where the locals wouldn't touch it, the film is no mere look back. It draws a powerful connection to current conversations about racial injustice and allies joined together to fight it.

The film hits theaters Friday, timed to Saturday's Juneteenth commemoration of the announced end of slavery in 1865 in Texas, the last Confederate state to formally be presented with President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by an advancing Union general. A clip is below:

At the time of Duncan's arrest, Plaquemines Parish was the fiefdom of Leander Perez, a corrupt Democratic political boss who, from the 1920s until he died in 1969, ruled the rural parish, which straddles the Mississippi River as it pours into the Gulf of Mexico.

On the local and national scene, Perez was known as a fierce advocate for segregation; on a TV broadcast shown in the film, he proudly affirmed his view that Black people were inherently immoral due to limited brain capacity that he said stunted their evolution.

Perez still had a firm grip on his power one month after federally enforced school integration began when Duncan, a shrimp fisherman and new father, drove past the parish's only public school on Oct. 18, 1966, and spotted his nephew and cousin outnumbered by a group of white boys. He stopped to intercede.

"We don't want to fight 'em, we just wanted to know their name," said one of the white boys, Herman "Bud" Landry, according to re-created trial testimony.

"I told him, 'My name's Gary,' and I touched him on his arm," Duncan says. "Didn't hit him, just touched him. … And that was it."

Richard Sobol
| Credit: Courtesy A Crime on the Bayou

That night, Duncan's mom called him to say there was a warrant for his arrest on a charge of cruelty to a juvenile.

"They wanted to use me as an example for the rest of the Blacks," says Duncan, who turned himself in the next day. Though he pleaded not guilty and the charge was dropped, he swiftly was targeted with a new charge: assault and battery.

"I realized they were after me," he says.

What followed were a series of legal skirmishes, with one court eventually concluding that charges repeatedly pursued against Duncan amounted to "malicious prosecution." Along the way, Sobol himself was charged.

"The essence of the Southern system in those days was total control -- control of Black people and white people," Armand Derfner, another civil rights attorney, says in the film. "If a white person thought differently, they'd find the law on them, too."

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The documentary's director, Nancy Buirski, tells PEOPLE: "That's what, to me, is so insidious and dangerous about white supremacy; it's not just people carrying banners, yelling, and screaming. It's actually manipulating the legal system and other systems so that people have difficulty living. It created a world in which Gary Duncan, and so many others, are afraid to walk down the street."

Underscoring that no safeguards are secure without a united front, Buirski excerpts a 2017 speech by Black activist and author Angela Davis that serves to address the present moment.

"I have an ambivalent relationship to the term 'allies,'" Davis said then, "because when it comes to challenging racism, I think white people should know that they have as much at stake as the people who are the immediate targets."

"This film isn't history; it's reality reconsidered," says Buirski. "We started making this movie before the Black Lives movement really got underway, and before George Floyd's murder. I would call Gary's story tragic, but not tragic on the same level as George Floyd's murder. But I think that one can take a string and connect the two."

"Gary wasn't physically abused by police, but it's the system, the policing system, and the legal system, they did this to him, and felt they had a right to do it," she says. "And they were sparked to do it by a clearly white supremacist power broker."

"A white cop who puts his knee on someone's neck for as long as he did, and killed someone, are those sentiments similar to Leander Perez?" she asks. "I bet they are."

The documentary completes a trilogy of sorts for Buirski. In The Loving Story (2011), she looked at an interracial married couple who were criminally charged under Virginia law, resulting in a 1967 Supreme Court ruling that voided bans in 21 states on interracial marriage. Her documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017), examines the 1944 assault by six white boys on a Black woman in Alabama to expose a legacy of physical abuse against Black women.

"We're at a point where we're focused on correcting the historical record a lot," Buirski says. "That's another motive in telling these stories as fairly as we can, because the textbooks have not over the years done a wonderful job telling these stories, and certainly, individuals like Gary Duncan and Mildred Loving and Recy Taylor have been overlooked in the textbooks. So just as people are kind of pulling down monuments, and revisiting a lot of these historical moments, I think our film has an opportunity, too, to shine a light on people that have been overlooked."

Segregationist sentiment may not be as overt now as in those earlier but not-so-distant examples, but "we've obviously been witness to it, whether it's the attack on the Capitol, or Charlottesville, or an attack on a synagogue," she says. "These are all eruptions of that sentiment ... and it's going to be a long time before we see that disappear."