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

In Silico


It’s the mind that matters.

(2020) Documentary (SandboxHenry Markram, Noah Hutton, Christof Koch, Eilif Muller, Lori Bargmann, Jeff Lichtman, Terrence Sejnowski, Anna Churchland, Kamila Markram, Kathryn Hess, Felix Schulman, Moritz Holmstaedter, David Engleman, Stephen Larson, Richard Walker, Martin Telefont, Sebastian Seung, Marc-Oliver Gewaltig, Thierry van der Pyl, Lida Kanari,. Directed by Noah Hutton

Scientific discovery is inexact. It doesn’t operate on schedules. It doesn’t adhere to timetables. It takes detours and follows tangents. It never, EVER, goes the way we think it’s going to go, even if we’re the finest scientific mind of our generation.

Henry Markram isn’t the finest scientific mind of his generation, but he’s certainly one of them. Nobody disputes his genius. At a TED talk, he talked about how using a supercomputer, he has begun not only mapping a brain – the most mysterious and complex of human organs – but replicating one, and while starting with a mouse brain, he felt that computers and scientific data about brain function will have given him the ability to do so with a human brain within ten years.

In the audience was a young man named Noah Hutton, freshly graduated from film school. He instantly recognized that this could be a discovery of historic proportion and he meant to be the one documenting the research. Markram agreed to it and with IBM and the Swiss government providing funding to the tune of millions of Euros, Markram was off to the races with some like-minded scientists along to help make this grand plan a reality.

Markram is certainly a charismatic sort and Hutton certainly fell under his spell, but over the years some cracks began to appear in the façade. As work continued on what was dubbed the Blue Brain Project, a second study was commissioned which Markram would oversee – the Human Brain project and it was given a funding kitty of a billion Euros. Soon, it became clear that Markram’s leadership in this second project had become chaotic. Eventually, in protest, some 800 neuroscientists signed a letter stating objections to the goals, methods and style of Markram’s stewardship. Eventually, even Hutton became disillusioned, realizing that Markram had been overly ambitious with his claims. Many neuroscientists had, from the beginning, expressed doubt that there was enough data in existence to allow even the most advanced supercomputer or brilliant scientist to create an accurate model.

It wasn’t long before things went to open warfare between those backing Markram and those opposing him. Early successes hadn’t proved sustainable; it became clear that Markram couldn’t make his self-imposed 2019 deadline.

Hutton’s documentary is a fascinating document not so much on the science which probably requires an advanced degree in neuroscience and computer engineering to understand but on the interpersonal relationships that form, and are fractured in the course of a project. Much of the pressures that Markram is under are self-imposed; one wonders how differently things might have turned out had he not set a date for when his discovery would be completed.

Brilliance is often accompanied by ego, and that’s the case here. There are plenty of scientists who are interviewed here who express their doubts and/or their admiration of Markram, but at the end of the day, we see a lack of hubris which certainly those who mistrust scientists can point to as a reason why. The work continues on what is a promising idea, but now they’re talking in term of multiple decades rather than a single ten year span. Time will tell if they’re right.

The film made its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival this week and is still available through tomorrow online for those residing in the United States who wish to purchase a single viewing ticket at the link below; otherwise, a limited and VOD release is planned although no dates have been announced just yet.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating look at the politics of science.
REASONS TO AVOID: Content can be very highbrow and dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the tone may be a little bit above the heads of most youngsters, the content is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The human brain has always been studied in one of two ways; In Vivo (in a living subject) ,or in vitro (brain tissue studied in a nutrient solution from a non-living donor). The Blue Brain Project proposed to discover a third method; in silico, or on a computer model.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Virtual Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Human
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kaali Khuhi