15 Dec The New York Times | Review: ‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ Takes a Deep Dive Into Systemic Injustice
Planting a flag firmly at the intersection of patriarchy, sexism and white supremacy, “The Rape of Recy Taylor” is a documentary of multiple layers and marvelous gumption. As if apprised in advance of our current political moment, the director, Nancy Buirski, wields the titular violation as a signpost to a wider, more insidious American crime. In this way, the 1944 gang-rape of one black woman in Alabama becomes emblematic of the effacement of an entire gender.
Were it not for the director’s steady hand and adamantine focus on her destination, this ambition could have been the film’s undoing. Instead, its scope is stirring, the gradual accumulation of insult and outrage reaching far beyond tiny Abbeville where the crime occurred and where Recy, then 24, lived with her husband and new daughter. The miracle, though, is that the movie isn’t a diatribe. Its voices — including several members of Recy’s family and that of Rosa Parks herself, who investigated the assault — are gentle and persuasive, using the horrific details of the rape and its aftermath as ballast to stabilize a heart-wrenching history of systemic injustice.
The cleverness of this structure only gradually becomes apparent as Ms. Buirski slowly obliterates skin tone distinctions to land on a perfectly calibrated final section. Some may chide her, not without cause, for overreaching; yet the emotional impact of her deep-diving images — especially the astonishing clips from the “race films” of the 1940s and earlier — is profound. An evocative shot of a black woman in a white dress, fleeing from someone in graceful terror, reminds us repeatedly of the movie’s original atrocity.
“They played in her body,” Recy’s sister Alma Daniels says at one point. It’s perhaps the most devastating claim in a film overflowing with them.