Gary Duncan was 19 and living in Plaquemines Parish, La., in 1966 when he tried to break up an argument between white and Black teenagers outside a newly integrated school. Mr. Duncan, who is Black, put a hand on a white boy’s arm, and that simple act led the police to burst into his home and arrest him for assault on a minor.
What followed was a complicated legal fight that made its way to the Supreme Court.
Now a new documentary, “A Crime on the Bayou,” explores both the case and the lasting bond that was formed between Mr. Duncan and his lawyer, Richard Sobol. Inspired by the book “Deep Delta Justice” by Matthew Van Meter, A Crime on the Bayou is the third film in a trilogy by Nancy Buirski that profiles people who fought for justice in and around the civil rights era.
I recently caught up with one of the film’s executive producers, Mike Jackson, about the documentary’s relevance today, an era marked by the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests against systemic racism. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Why was it important to get this documentary developed and bring attention to this particular incident in the civil rights movement?
Everything’s still happening. Racism is alive and kicking. I think to highlight the stories and the atrocities that have happened to people of color, for decades, it’s really important for us to get behind those stories and use our platforms. If we don’t, it’ll never end.
Racism is just so alive and strong these days that I think it’s important to trace it back to the origin stories.
Are there moments during the creation of the film, or moments within the film that stand out to you?
For me personally, I think the highlight moment in the movie is the overall messaging about how easily someone of color could be accused of something and their life being turned upside down. Connecting the dots between how racism has been dealt with in this country and how hard it is to navigate America as a Black man, and how easy it is for someone to say, “they did it.”
The system typically works in the favor of the accuser, which is often not the person of color. Being Black at any moment in time means you could be perceived to be guilty whether you’ve done something or not.
Can you talk a bit more about the specific parallels you see in this film and parallels to racial injustices of today?
It’s ironic that you asked me this question because I recently saw a headline and read an article about two young Black men. One was about to be a freshman in college on an athletic scholarship and the other one was his younger brother, and they had just gone on a family vacation and the father allowed his kids to go out and meet a friend. Apparently they matched a description of two Black men who were in an altercation earlier that day. They were arrested and were held in jail without any charges for 30 days.
During the course of that 30 days, the older son lost his scholarship to college, and no charges were ever filed. And it made me think of ourselves, again, the timeliness of it and the relevance of it because literally being Black in this country, you’re guilty until proven innocent. It just shows the inequalities of this country. All we’re asking for is equality. And I think our film explores that in an extraordinary way.
Whom do you hope the film reaches?
Folks that for whatever reason refuse to see what racism does to this country. Maybe they can connect the dots of this film to the death of George Floyd and all the other atrocities that have happened in this country over so many decades and finally realize this is real, this is happening. I have zero expectations that it’s going to happen because these last two years in particular — the things people have said and the things we’ve seen when it comes to race relations in this country — are just really discouraging. But again, maybe this film can inspire people in some way to right the wrongs in this country. So hopefully, at the very least, this film could be a power for more action and more justice.
What can people learn from Gary Duncan and his story?
I think the takeaway is faith.
Gary Duncan was trying to do the right thing and stop violence by breaking up this situation, and it backfired. But through that process, he stood tall and he found faith and found allyship from someone that didn’t look like him. And I think hopefully the message is, like the Underground Railroad, it takes a village. It takes all types of people to overcome adversity. And I think it’s really important that faith exists in any fight that you’re about to take on, that you have faith that you can get to the other side of it with your head held high.
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