The Jewish Mensch Who Helped Fight Racial Injustice in the Deep South

Nancy Buirski’s ‘A Crime on the Bayou’ is a moving documentary about a pivotal but little-known case in Louisiana in the 1960s. She talks about civil rights lawyer Richard B. Sobol, and why she had to convince him his story needed telling

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
The mug shot of Richard B. Sobol, following his arrest in Louisiana in the mid-1960s.
The mug shot of Richard B. Sobol, following his arrest in Louisiana in the mid-1960s.Credit: Shout! Studios / Augusta Films
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

“A Crime on the Bayou” is a horribly generic title. Is it a new James Lee Burke thriller, in which Dave Robicheaux investigates how Alec Baldwin killed a potential film franchise stone-dead with just one performance in 1996’s “Heaven’s Prisoners”? Perhaps it’s a buzzy podcast that’s sure to spark a fierce bidding war for the screen rights, only to later be disgraced over dubious reporting methods? Or a shamelessly clickbaity headline that turns out to be about neither crime or the Bayou, and will make you want to wash your hands afterward?

You may not be surprised to learn that it is none of the above. A more accurate, but less snappy, title would be “A Crime on the Bayou: Two Mensches Fearlessly Take on the Racist South” – but I have few other complaints about director Nancy Buirski’s new documentary (out now in select U.S. cinemas and a shoo-in to feature at Israeli film festivals later this year).

This is a powerful, moving film about hatred of both Blacks and Jews in America’s Deep South in the 1960s (a shockingly antisemitic placard at one white demonstration calls for Blacks to be deported to Africa, while “traitors” should be dispatched to the “gas chamber”), and a disturbing depiction of institutionalized racism that was not so much embedded into the system as an integral part of the foundations.

Ultimately, it champions the efforts of two dogged, determined, decent men to foment change and turn the tide of history in a hotbed of racism like the Mississippi River Delta. Black fisherman Gary Duncan and Jewish lawyer Richard B. Sobol would take the state of Louisiana all the way to the Supreme Court in January 1968 and – historical spoiler alert – win.

I’ll let the film give you the details, but the elevator pitch is that Duncan, then 19, was the victim of a miscarriage of justice after falsely being accused of assaulting a white schoolboy while trying to act as peacemaker in their swampy Louisiana backwater of Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, one day in October 1966.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not aware of this incident – not many people will be, and it’s not like Bob Dylan released a protest song about it. After all, we’re not talking Rubin Carter levels of injustice here about a man rotting in jail for years and years, but rather a rotten system led by a disarmingly unabashed white supremacist called Leander Perez, who sought to Make the Deep South Great Again with every bone in his racist body.

“Crime” is a terrific film and follows last year’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble” in shining a welcome light on the dark practices of the South in the 1950s and ’60s, and the people who fought them – including a group of Jewish lawyers who headed south from their East Coast law practices for a few weeks every year to be part of that cause.

Sobol, who died in March 2020 at age 82 of pneumonia, was exceptional even among the Jews helping fight for Black rights at the time.

While others would donate three weeks annually to the struggle, the New York-born Sobol went a step further: He quit his promising job at one of Washington’s esteemed law firms (whose partners included future disgraced Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas as a partner – Sobol notes with disgust that one of the other partners insisted that they never hire Black secretaries) and relocated to New Orleans, where he worked permanently as an out-of-state civil rights lawyer.

Gary Duncan in 1960s Louisiana, from "A Crime on the Bayou."Credit: Shout! Studios / Augusta Films

Another star of the film is fellow Jewish attorney Armand Derfner. He’s the charismatic former head of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, which would take on civil rights cases; Derfner would be shot at, and even have the family dog poisoned, for his troubles.

He contributes some real zingers in his otherwise touching testimony here (his parents had gotten the last train out of Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940), including how all of the other civil rights lawyers were jealous of Sobol because he “got all the headlines – and all he had to do was spend a couple of hours in jail” to achieve recognition (following an attempt by Perez to pressure him not to take on civil rights cases).

Another notable interviewee is writer Lolis Eric Elie, whose father, Lolis Elie, was one of the partners of the most prominent Black law firm in New Orleans for whom Sobol worked.

When he’s discussing “the talk” that many Black parents have with their kids about “blue-on-Black” violence, he points out that it really wasn’t necessary in his Louisiana home. “How often do you talk to your parents about humidity? It’s always there,” he sums up.

Richard B. Sobol being interviewed in "A Crime on the Bayou."Credit: Shout! Studios / Augusta Films

Several careers

Nancy Buirski has had a fascinating career. Several, actually. In a previous millennium, she was the foreign pictures editor at The New York Times and also worked at Magnum Photos, prior to founding and running the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for over a decade from 1997.

She came to filmmaking at a later stage of life than many, but hasn’t wasted any time in the intervening years. “A Crime on the Bayou” is the third of her documentaries to uncover racial injustice and celebrate the people who fought it, following the award-winning “The Loving Story” in 2011 and “The Rape of Recy Taylor” in 2017.

But she has also made documentaries about legendary film directors (2015’s “By Sidney Lumet”) and great ballet dancers (2013’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” about Tanaquil Le Clercq), while her next project is about the milieu that inspired John Schlesinger’s oh-so-dark LA drama “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969.

The following phone interview with Buirski, conducted prior to “A Crime on the Bayou” premiering in New York last Friday, has been edited for brevity, clarity and in an effort to make the interviewer sound coherent.

How aware were you of this “crime on the bayou” at the start of the process?

“Let’s put it this way, I wasn’t surprised to learn that something like that could happen, but I wasn’t aware of that particular case. I learned about the case reading the proposal for a book by Matthew Van Meter, called ‘Deep Delta Justice’ [published in July 2020], and that introduced me to the case of Gary Duncan and the work of Richard Sobol.”

Gary and Richard both come across as remarkable men in the film. Having worked closely with them, what’s your take on who they are as people?

“They’re both incredibly humble and very noble, in my estimation. Neither one of them ever bragged about what they did. Richard was at first reticent to do the documentary, because he was proud of what he did but didn’t understand why the world would need to know about it – and we convinced him that the world did need to know about it.

“Gary is a very gentle and stoic man, and still feels very strongly about his rights – none of that has changed. But he’s also incredibly warm and generous. I came to love both of them. I was happy that Richard Sobol could see the film before he passed away; that meant so much to me.”

Gary Duncan being interviewed in "A Crime on the Bayou."Credit: Shout! Studios / Augusta Films

There’s a quote from a fellow lawyer in Sobol’s New York Times obituary that says “Richard wasn’t a traditional type of lawyer,” and I thought: You can say that again. Did you get a sense of why civil rights became his life and why this wasn’t a “three-week vacation” thing like with some of the other lawyers?

“His principles. This was a man who had very deep and powerful principles, and once he got [to New Orleans] and realized what he could accomplish – he said: ‘I accomplished more in three weeks than I ever could have accomplished in three years in Washington.’ And it wasn’t just how much he accomplished, but the value of what he accomplished.

“I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision to move south, because uprooting your family is never easy, but I think morally and emotionally and intellectually, it was a clear decision for him to stay.”

He talks very briefly in the film about how Jews who survived the Holocaust, and close descendants of those who did, felt driven at the time to help Black people given their dire situation. Did he say anything else about that?

“No, he didn’t. I think that’s all he had to say about it – I think he felt it was fairly obvious that if you’ve lived through the Holocaust, either through your relatives or immediate family, and that’s touched you in any way, one would clearly empathize with people who are going through similar struggles.”

Richard B. Sobol attending a civil rights protest in Louisiana, from "A Crime on the Bayou."Credit: Shout! Studios / Augusta Films

The Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement is well documented, and it’s also a very strong presence throughout your film. Were you always intending to frame the story in such a way?

“Given the amount of information we know, the Jewish involvement was a clear part of the story. I didn’t intentionally set out to frame it that way, but the relationships between racism and antisemitism seemed very clear to me – we’re basically talking about hate. We’re talking about people who are so afraid of people who are unlike themselves that they become hateful and they attack, physically and otherwise, people who are different them.”

One of the horrors of the story is Leander Perez, the political boss of Plaquemines Parish who we see shamelessly spouting white supremacist rhetoric in the film. He died in 1969, but did you consider reaching out to members of his family?

“Most of his people had passed. There are a few descendants, but I felt that he speaks for himself – he comes across loud and clear! He was such a media hog and he allowed himself to be photographed and interviewed so often that I’m not sure I needed to speak to anybody else. [There is one particularly jaw-dropping moment when he is interviewed by William F. Buckley Jr. and rejects the idea that he is a bigot – mere seconds after stating that all Black people are inherently “immoral. They are unmoral. I know that to be a fact. Why should I try to hide it?”]

"A Crime on the Bayou" director Nancy Buirski.Credit: Jade Albert

“The film is already fairly complex in its ideas: the intimate story of Gary and Richard and their relationship, their beautiful friendship. And then there’s more abstract ideas, global ideas, that deal with racism and antisemitism. There’s a lot that’s packed into this film and I hope it’s woven together effectively, because that’s the challenge in making a film like this.”

‘Single moments’

You mention the footage of Perez but what about events in Louisiana at the time? Was there much material to comb through? You use some great still images, for example.

“During the civil rights struggle, there were a lot of very fine documentary photographers covering that. There’s a tremendous amount of footage, much of which we’ve seen a lot of already, and that’s one of the reasons I leaned into the photographs – because many of those hadn’t been seen. I thought that those pictures so beautifully captured the essence of what was going on, not necessarily on the nose, not necessarily describing exactly what we were talking about, but they were representations of the general climate and the toxic environment that these people were living in.”

Given your own background working on picture desks at the Times and Magnum, how much does that past still inform your present? How much do you think in terms of a single image in your films?

“I can’t help it. My inclination to think in terms of single images – or single moments, maybe that’s a good way to put it – does grow out of that. And it even plays a role in the footage that I use as well, because I’m very conscious of the visual power of beautiful, archival footage – evocative archival footage. I’ve been looking at, studying and handling still photographs for most of my life. It’s one of the reasons I felt a natural inclination to move into documentary film.”

Your documentary career seems to split into what might be called socially motivated movies such as this, “The Loving Story” and “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” and films on the likes of Sidney Lumet and the upcoming one inspired by “Midnight Cowboy.” Is it easy for you to separate the two strands?

“Actually, I don’t. I see the connections among all of these films, and that includes my film on Sidney Lumet and the film I made about Tanaquil Le Clercq, the ballet dancer who was stricken with polio. I feel like there is a moral consciousness that threads its way through all of these films. I’ve thought long and hard about this, because I never did feel that they were separate.

“Sidney Lumet is very interested in people who stand up to corrupt forces – you look at ‘Serpico,’ ‘Prince of the City, ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ Some of his greatest films deal with people who show moral courage, and in fact even in ’12 Angry Men,’” where Henry Fonda’s character has the courage to stand up to the other jurors who want to convict the accused man.

“I feel that’s why I was so interested in people like Mildred Loving [who battled a ban in Virginia on mixed-race marriage with her white husband Richard] and Recy Taylor, who stands up and accuses her attackers [in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944]. And Gary Duncan, who has been pushed around long enough and won’t take this anymore.”

You’re from New York and over the past decade have headed south to make films about the civil rights struggle in the ’60s. You’re continuing on the same path others blazed in the’60s, but do you ever see it in those terms?

“It’s interesting. Michael Schwerner, one of the three men [along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman] who was killed in Mississippi during the civil rights struggle [and whose story is retold in the 1988 Alan Parker movie ‘Mississippi Burning’] – he actually came from my hometown, New Rochelle, NY. I think there were a lot of people who came out of those more privileged environments, those suburbs where I grew up, and really turned around and devoted themselves to liberal causes. I’m not sure what that’s about – I think that would take a whole other movie to figure out!”

“A Crime on the Bayou” is out now in select U.S. cities. For more details, visit the Shout! Studios website.

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