(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