On Sept. 3, 1944, Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American woman, was raped by six white men—all of whom lived near her home in the city of Abbeville, Alabama. Despite attempts to prosecute these criminals, none were convicted; instead, they were set free to live their lives as they saw fit, with only Taylor left to pay a terrible price. However, unwilling to remain in the shadows, Taylor made her defiant voice heard, a courageous act for anyone in her position, much less a non-Caucasian female in segregated Alabama.
Before long, the NAACP was sending Taylor assistance in the form of none other than Rosa Parks, whose valiant stand by Taylor’s side didn’t result in sentences for the perpetrators, but did plant seeds of rebellion that helped give birth to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the ensuing Civil Rights movement. Hers is a story of what can happen when truth is spoken to power, and it’s recounted with both raw emotional potency and aesthetic lyricism by Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor, whose premiere this past week at the New York Film Festival—right on the heels of recent NFL protests that have raised issues of marginalization, prejudice, and freedom of speech—couldn’t be more timely.
That aptness isn’t lost on Buirski, who a day after its stateside premiere says that the documentary began to seem truly, urgently connected to the here and now at the start of this year. “It’s always timely, and whenever I do a film I try to think about how it resonates with whatever time we’re in. But it has increased, and increased, and increased,” she states. “The Women’s Resistance March in January, with Michelle Obama speaking out against Trump talking about groping women—that was a direct connection to our movie. I couldn’t help thinking about the concrete links to the women’s organizations that we begin to appreciate at the end of our film. How that energy and that organizational power fed the Civil Rights movement, and how women’s resistance and women marching in 2017 is basically doing the same thing.
“That was one connection that was so important. Also, you start to deal with issues like pro-choice. This is, again, about bodily integrity. It’s about owning one’s body and having the right to do with one’s body what one should be able to. So there are connections that existed in the beginning of this year,” she adds. “And then, certainly, we have Charlottesville, where we’re suddenly shining a light on white supremacy again, which has been developing ever since Trump got into office. Then you say, ‘Oh my goodness, this has not gone away. This is very relevant to today.’”
Certainly, there are plenty of hard-to-miss parallels between current headlines—much of them spawned by the behavior of our commander in chief—and the fate of Recy Taylor, whose plight immediately spoke to Buirski, a filmmaker who’d previously told another tale of anti-discrimination bravery with 2011’s The Loving Story (which served as the basis for last year’s dramatized Loving). Buirski first learned about Taylor via Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance, whose first three chapters concerned both Taylor and Parks. “I felt it was a story that most people don’t know about,” says Buirski. “And it reminded me a lot of the Loving story, where you had Mildred Loving, who like Recy Taylor was a hero, and had to stand up for what she thought was right, even though she was not an activist, and certainly did not set out to change history. With Recy Taylor, she changed history just by speaking up—and by ‘just,’ I don’t mean to trivialize it. It took tremendous courage to do what she did.”
While Taylor’s saga is horrifying (and illuminating) in its own right, it’s given a measure of haunting poeticism by Buirski’s documentary. With Taylor now in poor health, and with minimal archival material with which to work—although transcripts of the teen rapists’ police statements are chillingly narrated—the director opts for a more unconventional approach. Eschewing dramatic recreations, and buoyed by interviews with Taylor’s brother Robert Corbitt and sister Alma Daniels, Buirski creates an evocative audio-video collage in The Rape of Recy Taylor, by employing a wealth of clips from “race films.” Primarily produced during the first half of the 20th century, these movies were made for black audiences, and generally boasted all-black casts. Because they were fictional in nature, and often featured crude stereotypes, Buirski found that she had to tread somewhat lightly in using them—yet she nonetheless found them to be a vital “out-of-the-box” means of amplifying the larger meaning of Recy’s narrative.
“This film is as much about memory, and emotional memory, as it is about anything else,” she remarks. “The reason I felt they [‘race films’] were so important, and that I wanted to work around some of those limitations, is that I thought they represented a more universal story than what I might have felt if I were only telling Recy Taylor’s story. It was very important for me to say that this happened to more than just Recy Taylor, and that the dynamics of her story are dynamics that translate across a vast plain. Then it almost becomes biblical. So the aesthetic of the ‘race films’ allowed me to go to that, without being literal.”
From these “race films” comes The Rape of Recy Taylor’s defining image: that of an anonymous African-African woman fleeing down a dirt road and, later, running back and forth in a nighttime forest, unsure of which way to turn to find sanctuary from some unseen threat. Citing Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set as one of her many sources for these “race films,” Buirski confesses that, the second she saw those images, “I remember saying to my editor, ‘I’m starting my movie with this.’” As with her snapshots of early 20th-century Abbeville (and one of a well-dressed African-American woman that fades into a photo of Taylor herself), these sights conjure a deeper sense of historic injustices against women and African-Americans, and the way in which they continue to repeat, over and over again, in nightmarish fashion.
As a white director telling a black woman’s life story, Buirski admits she was keenly aware of her own relationship to the material. Yet she claims that the “white gaze” referenced in her doc by Yale scholar Crystal Feimster—brought up in order to contrast it with the perspectives of the “race films”—was a crucial component of her work. “The white gaze on these issues, which are in fact the American story, is very, very important,” she asserts. “Not that black perspectives should not be front and center; I hope that our film will become a foundation for many, many more films to deal with subjects like Recy Taylor’s story.”
As The Rape of Recy Taylor ultimately reveals, Taylor finally did achieve a symbolic victory in 2011, when the Alabama House of Representatives formally apologized for the miscarriage of justice that took place in 1944. While no one would dare claim this gesture made up for the trauma she endured during her assault and in the years afterward, it proved that, with strength, perseverance and courage, altering hateful hearts and minds was possible—both on an individual, and societal, level. Thus, to Buirski, it made perfect sense to end her non-fiction portrait with Taylor herself, who six decades later now lives in Florida.
“Films tell you how to make them, in a way. It’s an organic process. And the more this movie unfurled, the more natural it felt to have Recy at the end,” she explains. “There’s something quite heroic about her, and when her sister says she’s still here, that’s such a powerful moment that it just made sense to be able to champion her. It’s her voice that’s important in this movie, and we wanted to end the film with her voice.”