A Crime on the Bayou


The bayou may be timeless, but it’s not unchanging.

(2020) Documentary (Augusta) Gary Duncan, Richard Sobol, Leander Perez, Dan Rather (voice), Lolis Eric Elie, Armand Defner, Lolis Elie, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Robert A. Collins, Angela Davis. Directed by Nancy Buirsky

“The more that things change, the more they stay the same”. This is especially true of American race relations. This documentary, the third in a series of documentaries by Buirsky documenting lesser-known cases of the Civil Rights movement, dusts off a vitally important case that should be right up there in the history books but isn’t.

Gary Duncan was a 19-year-old fisherman in Plaquemines Parish in southern Louisiana in 1965. He was picking up his wife and newborn son at the hospital when he noticed a brewing altercation outside the newly integrated high school; two African-American boys (one of them Duncan’s cousin) were surrounded by four white youths. Duncan stopped and tried to defuse the situation; the white boys were belligerent but Duncan managed to get the two black kids into his car and drive away.

However, the white kids told a different story. They informed police that Duncan was threatening and had slapped one of them (in fact, Duncan had just touched one of them lightly on the elbow). He was arrested that night.

Duncan had reason to be afraid; the parish was run by one of the most notorious bosses in the South; Leander Perez, a strict segregationist and unabashed racist (he was proud to share on talk shows how “Negroes were morally (inferior)” and had limited learning capacity. Perez initially wanted to just send a message to Duncan to reiterate Duncan’s place in the food chain. However, spurred on by his mama’s righteous indignation, Duncan stood up. He refused to plead guilty and end the incident.

Instead, they went to the offices of a civil rights law firm in New Orleans and were assigned Richard Sobol, a white Jewish lawyer from New York who had come for a few weeks to assist in civil rights cases and ended up staying in Louisiana for decades. In the face of a deck stacked against the two of them, Sobol persevered when a Perez-appointed judge refused to allow Duncan a trial by jury. Sobol took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Earl Warren court ruled unanimously that all defendants were entitled to a trial by jury for any criminal violation, something that some states had prevented – particularly in the South, where bogus arrests were the norm.

Buirsky talks with most of the principles (Perez, who died weeks after losing the case, is one of the exceptions) and uses actual audio of the Supreme Court arguments and uses voice re-enactors reading the transcripts from the local trials. There are also contemporary and archival interviews with those involved. Buirsky tries to give a little too much background information as we get a lot of background on the Civil Rights era and how scary it was ot only for people of color living in the south, but also for the white lawyers and activists who tried to help them.

The background music is haunting, ranging from Dixieland to blues to ragtime to ambient sounds. Buirsky, though, has a tendency to go off point in trying to project a complete picture, which often slows the pacing down and for those of us who are familiar with the tribulations of the Civil Rights movement back then, offering redundant information. I think she could have gotten her point across a bit more succinctly than she did. Sticking more to the case at hand would have benefitted the film; at times I felt like focus was being lost in favor of context. I think most of us understand that the civil rights of the accused were being consistently disregarded and belittled.

The case was a landmark decision, but few people have heard of it. Films like this that remind us of the lesser known battles in the Civil Rights movement are priceless, not just to remind us how far we’ve come and how bad things were, but also to remind us that things are still pretty bad and we have a loooooooong way to go. It gives one pause to consider that this case, had it been argued in today’s Supreme Court, might not have rendered the same decision.

The film is playing DOC NYC through today; it still can be screened online by American residents. It will continue to be available at virtual online festivals (particularly around New Orleans) in the coming months; it should be available either as Virtual Cinema or through VOD streaming services shortly. Given the state of affairs in American race relations, it should be required viewing for all Americans.

REASONS TO SEE: An important document about a landmark case in the civil rights movement that doesn’t get the due it should be afforded. Beautiful score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Meanders from the case in question from times to give background – to a fault.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including racial slurs as well as some adult themes and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sobol passed away shortly after filming for this documentary was completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rape of Recy Taylor
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Once Upon a River

Calendar Girl


Ruth Finley hasn’t quite been covering fashion since these columns were new.

(2020) Documentary (DitlevRuth Finley, Kathleen Turner, Tommy Hilfiger, Betsey Johnson, Bill Cunningham, Joseph Siegel, Carolina Herrera, Gael Greene, Diane von Furstenberg, Nicole Miller, Larry Lein, Mickey Boardman, Harold Koda, Ellin Saltzman, Mary Packer, Steven Kolb, Ralph Rucci, Garry Wassner, Debbie de Monfort, Ruth Thale, Andrew Bolton, Nanette Lepore. Directed by Christian D. Bruun

There is no doubt that New York is one of the primary stars in the fashion constellation. It is chock full of events from showings to preview parties to honors ceremonies. Keeping track of everything is a full-time job, but a necessary one for the industry to function.

For 65 years, Ruth Finley, founder and editor of Fashion Calendar, was the glue that held the industry together. Her calendar, which appeared weekly for a time and then bi-weekly and printed on distinctive pink paper so it could be found quickly on a cluttered office desk, became a bible allowing buyers to make sure they were getting to all the events they needed to, and for designers to maximize attendance at their shows.

Finley, a tiny woman towered over by statuesque models, made this her life’s work and a labor of love it was too. With a small staff (which at one time included future Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts), she kept track of everything fashion going on in the Big Apple, a kind of oasis of order amidst the chaos. In an industry where ego was big and tantrums were often bigger, Ruth was different in that she was kind, and helpful, particularly to new designers trying to establish themselves in one of the most notoriously cutthroat industries in the world.

Finley is naturally a modest woman but also possessed with a core of steel; she was a career woman in an era when that was exceedingly rare. She also divorced her first husband in 1954, an era when that was scandalous, and after her second husband died suddenly in 1959, she became a single mom, something very rare for that era. She remained so for the rest of her life, never remarrying although towards the end of her life she did have a boyfriend (Joseph Siegel, a former executive at Macy’s).

She did things her own way and was stubbornly analogue even when she was pleaded with to put her magazine online. She worked into her mid-90s, reluctantly selling Fashion Calendar to the Council of Fashion Designers of America who did eventually put the magazine online, discontinuing its print edition but in tribute to the magazine’s founder, kept the color of the calendar pink.

Bruun takes a fairly conservative approach to the documentary, relying mostly on talking head interviews with friends, family and admirers of Finley, interspersed with archival footage and photographs from both Finley’s personal life and from the fashion industry in general. It does get a bit hagiographic after awhile, but the more Finley is on-camera, the more you realize that the admiration is well-earned. Finley is the film’s secret weapon; charming, self-effacing and joyful about an industry that she loved. In her mid-90s for most of the film, her energy and joy is infectious. Yes, this is mostly going to appeal to those who love fashion and in particular the New York fashion scene, but documentary buffs will get a kick out of Finley who will charm even the most curmudgeonly viewer.

The movie recently made its world premiere at DOC NYC and remains available for virtual viewing at the link below through today. While it has yet to get a distribution deal, it is extremely likely that it will see at the very least several film festival appearances this fall, as well as some sort of distribution or streaming deal at the very least. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Finley is a delightful subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: May not appeal to non-fashionistas.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Finley passed away in August 2018, three years after filming was completed at the age of 98.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iris
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Crime on the Bayou