The Guardian | The Rape of Recy Taylor: behind one of the year’s most vital documentaries

Sexual violence against women of color in the 40s went largely unpunished and a new film aims to shed light on one of the most courageous figures from the era

The titular crime in The Rape of Recy Taylor and the miscarriage of justice that follows occurred in 1944 and the spring of 1945. But amid a wave of sexual assault claims that is sweeping powerful men off their perches, the modern analogues are hard to miss. Specifically, the question of where this moment leaves women with no power, no leverage, no fame.

Director Nancy Buirski’s timing was an accident, but one she is grateful for.

“This is such an important time in this country’s path to recognize Recy Taylor,” said Buirski, best known for directing The Loving Story, about Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple who toppled laws against interracial marriage. “With women being singled out on Time magazine’s cover, as part of the #MeToo campaign, I really want to draw attention to the black women who spoke up when their lives were seriously in danger.”

On the night of 3 September 1944, in Abbeville, Alabama, six white men kidnapped Taylor at gunpoint as she walked home from church, blindfolded her and raped her. After Taylor reported her assault to Abbeville law enforcement, her and her extended family’s homes came under a series of attacks. Meanwhile, the Abbeville legal system worked instead to protect her assailants. The town’s sheriff asked Taylor to keep silent about the crime while a grand jury refused to hand down indictments.

Then, Taylor and her plight experienced a predigital version of virality. The modern analogues are striking. Hers was a story white, mainstream media outlets initially ignored. In their place, it was black-owned newspapers which sounded the first alarms about the cover-up in Abbeville and would eventually focus countrywide pressure on Alabama’s governor to act.

Rosa Parks, who was already well-known as an NAACP activist, came to Abbeville to organize on Taylor’s behalf and raise her profile.

“If you look at the list of people who ultimately supported the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs Recy Taylor” – the group borne of Parks’ efforts – “it was celebrities and entertainers and people who had a certain power to communicate, and that finally had a corrective impact,” Buirski said. “It takes a powerful group of people to draw attention the people who didn’t have power.”

Buirski illustrates these scenes of national consciousness-raising with snippets from race films, an American genre of interwar movies starring black actors and filmed for black audiences. They frequently took as their subject matter sexual violence against black women and lynching.

“We wanted to restore all these vehicles, all of the media that did champion these women, for a contemporary audience, because they were telling these stories – even though race films were fictional – honestly,” Buirski said.

As a work of restoration, Buirski’s documentary, which is based on the 2010 book “At the Dark End of the Street” by Danielle McGuire and premiered at the Venice film festival, also offers an antidote to the sanitized concept of Rosa Parks that persists today.

“She didn’t come out of nowhere,” Crystal Feimster, a Yale Univsersity associate professor of African American studies and history, tells Buirski’s audience. Rather, Parks was a practiced fighter on behalf of black women facing sexual violence, and she was vocal about the role white predation had played in her own life. In 1944, Parks’ reputation was fearsome enough that the sheriff removed her from town several times, at least once, with force.

But for all of the attention her cause received, justice eluded Taylor. Her rapists confessed but were buffeted to freedom by a form of racism with especially strong components of history and blood. Members of the all-white grand jury that refused – a second time – to issue indictments shared familial ties to her rapists. Taylor’s extended family shared a last name with the sheriff because his ancestors enslaved hers. When the sheriff asked for Taylor’s silence, he was merely putting history on repeat.

In parsing the outcome, Buirski said she wanted her audience to see sexual violence in all of its political dimensions.

“Back then, people recognized rape was a crime,” Buirski said. “Certainly it was in terms of law, but it wasn’t treated that way in terms of the culture. Men were taking advantage of women with impunity, and it was a legacy handed down from slavery, where white men owned their women slaves and their bodies.”

“Men were effectively emasculated in these situations,” she continued.

Their inability to seek justice for a family member or loved one reinforced their powerlessness – including by way of lethal force. Lynch mobs frequently attempted to justify their actions as a response to rape and violence against white women. In reality, said Buirski, lynchings sometimes occurred under just the opposite circumstances, against black men who sought punishment for white abusers.

Eventually, Buirski said, stories like Taylor’s faded from the forefront of the civil rights movement.

“I think very few women did speak up,” Buirski said. “I also think that during the civil rights movement, issues like equal accommodations and voting rights became more vital to the general population than issues about ‘sexual stuff.’ That was something that people put aside, that people didn’t want to talk about. It was unseemly to talk about, and certainly, to fight about.”

But the movement remained rooted in what Feimster called “a bodily claim to own a space”, a debt Buirski says it owed partly to women like Taylor.

“That was her legacy,” Buirski said. “Recy Taylor was so courageous, so brave to have spoken up.”

  • The Rape of Recy Taylor is out in US cinemas on 15 December with a UK date yet to be confirmed