“I can’t help but tell the truth – what they done to me,” 97-year-old Recy Taylor says as she sits in her nursing home in Abbeville, Alabama. Taylor is elegant — draped in pearls with her reading glasses perched on her nose. 73 years later, she can recall in vivid detail the night that changed her life forever. Filmmaker Nancy Buirski’s new documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor chronicles the horrendous assault that Taylor endured, which caused outrage across the country before it was swiftly erased from the history books. In 1944, while walking home from Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville with two friends, Taylor was kidnapped at gunpoint by seven white boys and raped for several hours in the woods. Taylor was a 24-year-old sharecropper at the time — a young wife and mother whose life shattered as a result of the brutal assault and the aftermath of it. However, her determination to speak out sparked a new type of resistance.
Rape is an unspeakable crime – it is as revolting as it is unfathomable and yet it remains so prevalent. The world has never been a safe place for women, but for women of color and Black women, in particular, it has been nightmarish. To tell Taylor’s story, the documentary uses footage from “race films” like Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates — home video, commentary from Yale scholar Crystal Feimster, Ph.D archival footage and interviews from Taylor’s siblings – her brother Robert Corbitt and sister, Alma Daniels. Buirski traces the night of the attack, the grand jury hearings that led to no indictments, as well as the NAACP’s involvement. It was Taylor’s willingness to speak out against what happened to her and so many other nameless, faceless women that propelled the Black Press and the nation to rally behind her.
The Rape of Recy Taylor is not an easy film to watch. Along with Taylor’s story – the film also moves through the history of Black women’s rapes by white men beginning with slavery. Utilizing research from scholar Danielle McGuire’s 2011 book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — the film examines the lack of justice and protection around Black women and their bodies. Buirski also hones in on the perception of Black women as a whole – the men who raped Taylor felt entitled to do so, and after they were questioned, they tried to claim that she was a prostitute.
The film moves quickly. The eerie race film footage and music like Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” tie together giving the documentary a tone that is prevalent in horror films. The audience sees the botched investigation into the assault and learns from Taylor’s family how much it affected her father – a man who began sleeping in the tree above their home with a shotgun to protect his family once the assault became public information. The one gripe that I had with the film was that we hear from the rapists’ families. To this day, they act as if the boys involved had simply gone joyriding in a stolen vehicle. Though they were probably given a voice out of a need to present a fair and balanced story, I was only enraged further.
Though Taylor’s story has mostly been forgotten — the state of Alabama even went as far as to delete many details from their records — her story is deeply embedded in the life of another Black woman. A woman whose name first rang out across the world during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. An investigator and secretary for the NAACP in Montgomery at the time of Taylor’s case, Rosa Parks drove to Abbeville to hear the young woman’s account of her assault, with hopes that attention from the NAACP and the Black press would shame the Alabama legislature into doing something about it.
Upon Parks’ arrival – Sheriff Corbitt (who shared a name with Taylor’s family because of slavery) dragged her out of Taylor’s father’s home and threatened her out of town. Parks was used to being forcibly removed and threatened by whites, and it was her own story of nearly being sexually assaulted when she was 18-years old during the Depression hat compelled her to help Black women who had been raped and sexually brutalized. Activism was in Parks’ blood well before she became the symbol of a movement.
Seven decades later, there has been very little justice for Recy Taylor. In 2011, the Alabama Legislature finally offered her a formal apology – but her courage in speaking out has mostly been overlooked. Still, the brilliance of Buirski’s work is that she not only brings this troubling period of the Jim Crow South to life, she carefully unpacks Black women’s roles in the Civil Rights Movement. Though often ignored and dismissed, it was Black women’s willingness to speak about the horrible things that were happening to them and to stand up and fight that sparked a revolution. Without Taylor, Parks, and countless other women like them, Black women — whether they were riders on the public buses or domestic workers fighting against their employers’ sexual advances, may not have had the courage to stand up and say – enough.
The Rape of Recy Taylor premiered Oct. 1 at the New York Film Festival.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami