Limpid, mysterious, and heavy with darkness, Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor is a kind of true ghost story. The characters are all real, and the events described are painfully so. But so much of it floats in a twilight gulf between the reality of what happened and what should have happened that it cannot help but feel at least in part unreal.
Of course, to most of the people Buirski interviews here, what happened to Taylor and what failed to happen to the six men who raped her one hot September night in 1944, isn’t just all too real—it’s the reality that they have lived and how they understand it. A reality in which a young black woman in the Deep South never had agency, much less any say over what happened to her person. If a white man wanted to have sex with her, who was she or any other black person to say no?
Buirski sets the scene in the remote town of Abbeville, Alabama, circa 1944. She interweaves present-day interviews with Recy Taylor’s family with black-and-white documentary footage of rural black life and scenes from prewar “race films”; some of the former was shot by the writer Zora Neale Hurston while the latter appears culled from the melodramas produced specifically for black audiences at a time when theaters were strictly segregated.
With little preamble, except to talk about Taylor’s church-going ways, the family talks about how six white boys were stalking about for a black woman to rape when they came across Taylor having just left church. The 24-year-old married mother was forced into a car at gunpoint, blindfolded, and driven away so they could gang-rape her. “What they did to her,” Taylor’s sister Alma Daniels says with a solemn finality, “they didn’t need to live.”
The story that follows in The Rape of Recy Taylor, which had its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival 2017”>New York Film Festival, is an infuriatingly familiar one of justice not just denied but utterly ignored. Taylor’s house is firebombed. One grand jury and then another fails to find anything to charge her attackers with. Buirski’s camera prowls through the nighttime underbrush as disembodied voices tell bits and pieces of the rape’s aftermath. Old blues numbers and a scratchy Billie Holiday recording of “This Bitter Earth” fill in gaps in the soundtrack.
The narrative doesn’t follow a strict this-then-that structure. Instead, it folds around the story from multiple angles, branching off to discuss how the (all male and white) power structure in Alabama at the time couldn’t even conceive that raping a black woman is a crime, given the history of ownership and dominance. Taylor’s brother Robert Corbitt even notes that their family shared a last name with the white sheriff for a simple reason: “They owned my ancestors.”
Setting her movie apart from some other recent documentaries about unpursued crimes of the past showing at the festival, like Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned, Buirski turns her movie into less of a cold case whodunnit than a mournful look at a system of injustice. A good part of the movie deals not with Taylor or her attackers but Taylor’s greatest champion: Rosa Parks. Before she was consigned to the heroic historical cliché of the woman who didn’t give up her seat on the bus, Parks was a barnstorming activist for the NAACP. Her fame was such that when she stole into Abbeville to take down Taylor’s story, Parks had to keep out of sight of the police, who wanted to run her out of town as an agitator.
Parks, not to mention the black press and other volunteers who pushed for justice, couldn’t ultimately be Taylor’s champion. The forces arrayed against them were just too entrenched. “They couldn’t see her,” one interviewee says, much less treat her as a human being and not property to be used and discarded at whim. Buirski’s movie does just about the only thing such a document can do so many years after such a grievous injustice: make Taylor visible.