Women and Hollywood | Nancy Buirski on Exploring Hidden Stories in the Civil Rights Movement in “The Rape of Recy Taylor”

Nancy Buirski’s writing, directing, and producing credits include “By Sidney Lumet,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” and the the Oscar shortlisted, Peabody and Emmy Award-winning “The Loving Story.” She founded and ran the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and is the photographer and author of “Earth Angels: Migrant Children in America.”

“The Rape of Recy Taylor” made its world premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival and will make its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 1.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

NB: This is a film about courage and nobility, about standing up for oneself, speaking truth to power, and power verging on evil. It is the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman who accused six white men of rape knowing she’d be putting her life in utter danger. She knew what these men did was wrong, and there was no shame for her as a survivor of their despicable act. In those years, she was not alone. As a teenager, Rosa Parks talked a white man out of raping her, then devoted her life to getting justice for women like Mrs. Taylor. This was years before Parks’ famous bus boycott!

This is a film about women’s crusade to protect their bodies and their dignity — no different from today — and in doing so becoming the very foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. These crimes were and are a form of terrorism, but unlike other highly visible forms of terrorism, white men raping black women was a secret. Considered “unspeakable,” these crimes were not spoken of publicly nor reported. These stories are hidden stories.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

NB: A remarkable book by Danielle L. McGuire, “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.” Recy Taylor’s story begins McGuire’s history of these incredible women.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

NB: I want them to remember a brave woman named Recy Taylor, who so many forgot or tried to silence in her lifetime. I’d love us all to give voice to women with such stories, then and now. I want women who have survived these atrocities to feel inspired by Recy Taylor and her courage.

Rape is universal, regardless of color, gender, religion, or nationality. It is a crime and needs to be recognized as such. No one asks a victim of robbery or assault if he or she was drinking.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NB: Marrying the very personal, dramatic story of Recy Taylor with the epic meaning of it all. The ramifications of Recy Taylor’s “speaking up” are infinite; they continue to reverberate today. How does a filmmaker tell such a searing, emotional story and deliver the broader ideas at the same time?

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

NB: This film is supported by generous funders who believed in Recy’s story, and communicated their belief through equity and grants. We’d not be where we are today if not for co-producer Transform Films, the remarkable Artemis Rising, Amy Tiemann, Mark Trustin, Barbara Dobkin, Matador Content, Lauren Embry, Derrick Harkins, and others.

On the creative end I’m indebted to DP Rex Miller and Blaire Johnson for their thrilling work in the field, providing me and my editor Anthony Ripoli with b-roll and provocative drone images. This helped me tell this sensitive story without recreations, which felt out of place here.

Our gratitude to Kino Lorber and to Gina Telaroli who helped locate valuable race films, lending the story a biblical resonance.

A shout out to our marvelous producers — no way this happens without Claire Chandler, Beth Hubbard, Susan Margolin, and Vanessa Martino, and advisers Danielle McGuire, Crystal Feimster, Laurens Grant, Susie Ruth Powell, Sam Pollard, and Jacquelyn Serwer.

Thanks to the amazing Cynthia Erivo for her Rosa Parks reading and to Randall Poster for help on the music.

Our deepest gratitude to Recy Taylor and her family, especially Robert Corbitt and the late Alma Daniels.

W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at the New York Film Festival?

NB: This is a coming home. I screened my second documentary, “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq,” at NYFF, but it’s a homecoming in other respects. I grew up in Manhattan and attended this festival over many years, well before I knew I’d make movies. It laid the foundation for my appreciation of cinema — it’s where I discovered Truffaut, Scorsese, Godard, and so many more. I might not be a filmmaker today if not for the New York Film Festival.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

NB: Best advice: Make it personal and don’t read reviews.

Worst advice: Don’t read reviews and don’t spend your own money. One can learn from reviews — good and bad — as long as it’s not too dispiriting and taken too seriously. And one must spend one’s own money — within reason — if only to get started. You must believe enough in yourself to invest in yourself. It is not a matter of pride.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

NB: Do what you can to help other women and keep making your movies. Don’t make what you think others will like or will get into festivals or will be well reviewed. Make what you believe in. And only look at the good stuff. This is advice I’d give anyone, not just women.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

NB: Really too many to name and too hard to choose. Forgive me.

W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directorsyet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.

NB: I am optimistic. Even if the changes are insincere or politically motivated, there seems to be an effort to hire more women. If the numbers don’t reflect this, the zeitgeist seems to. That’s alright with me, because as more women are visibly making movies the perception will change and it may, just may, start to feel normal.