Showtimes: Tuesday, October 3rd – 6pm, Francesca Beale Theater
post-screening Q&A with Nancy Buiriski on 10/3
There are so many relatively unknown stories that have helped to change the world as we know it. Recy Taylor’s own is one of them.
The horrendous thing that happened to her is obvious from the title. But what is not so obvious is that at the time of her gang rape by six white boys, deep in 1944 Abbeville, Alabama, within the pervasive culture of silence of Jim Crow South (which to some degree still exists), is that this 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper would fight to see her attackers brought to justice.
Not that this would be easy to accomplish.
The Rape of Recy Taylor comes at an odd, yet familiar, time in history. The Donald Trump presidency has more sensible people on edge as an always existing white supremacy is now emboldened to be more public. Professional yet currently unemployed football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s year-long protest of taking ‘a knee’ during the singing of the USA national anthem, to bring attention to police brutality against Black people, is finally being taken more seriously by the Black player-dominated National Football League. But most timely of all is the dreadfully unsubstantiated and divisive article on the Very Smart Brothas blog entitled “Straight Black Men Are The White People of Black People,” which attempts to make a case that Black men’s physical violence against Black women is systemic, salient, predatory, and makes them deadlier than anything white men have ever done, or continue to do to women of the African diaspora.
What filmmaker Nancy Buirsky’s documentary excellently does is further expose a long time truth: that the legacy of physical abuse of Black women by white men, one reaped during American enslavement of Blacks and has not ended, has negatively affected both Black women and men’s everyday functionality. “White men have had access to Black women. Forcibly. If they wanted one, they would get them. It was something that their fathers, their grandfather’s taught them,” says Recy’s nephew James Johnson II in the film. He continues, “The attitudes on the treatment of Black women was like back on the plantation…By having the power of having sex with Black women when they wanted to, they were in control.” Control of Black women’s bodies, and the minds Black men who could barely do anything about it.
And despite having a father who sought to protect Recy, one who traveled barefoot through the forest, shotgun in hand to find his daughter, he knew that he couldn’t kill these white boys because he had to stay alive to further protect his family – an all too common, yet emasculating necessity. Yet despite this harrowing history, the VSB article, and the support of it by way too many people, proves that this existing mindset both still exists and is seldom spoken about, which is why people need to see this documentary.
But I don’t want to detract from Recy’s direct narrative. The film hits on multiple notes, the strongest of which is that despite the dangers of Jim Crow, many Black women tried to prove their rape attacks were valid.
In the film, the same ol’ rapist dialogue is spouted saying that Recy was a whore, that she wanted to be gang raped, despite her being both a pious woman, literally on her way home from a church service when attacked, and married with a young child. When Recy seeks justice by identifying her attackers, one of whom lives practically a city block from her house, again she is denied, but that’s when things get really interesting.
Another seldom-known history unfurls as the Rosa Parks, a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is sent to Abbeville by the NAACP as their chief rape investigator. It’s personal for her her as Parks is the survivor of a near rape. She works vigorously to investigate and bring attention to Recy’s case, making Recy the ‘face’ of these injustices much like Parks herself would be with the bus boycott years later. This is, as Professor Crystal Feimster remarks in the film, “Part of a longer tradition of Black women saying, “This is not right…we deserve protection…justice.”
“So many people had gotten away with it…I think they felt the Black woman’s body didn’t belong to her,” says Recy’s little brother Robert Corbitt in the film, who for decades kept inquiring more and more to help make the case survive. We should all know who Recy Taylor is, yet Black history classes, textbooks, and even feminist text continues to downplay and fail Black women’s role in fighting to better all of our lives and shaping American history.
With a powerful narrative, which uses footage from early and mid-20th century “race films” (like Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates) to give a visual display of then-existing African-American life and perspectives, and complete with a surprise ending, “The Rape of Recy Taylor” is a true testament on what Black women brought and continue to bring to the movement against white supremacist oppression. This film will and should fuel outrage, but also lend you the courage to do something constructive about the problem.
Broadway star Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple) provides the voice for Rosa Parks, and Sam Pollard (Four Little Girls, When The Levees Broke) and Laurens L. Grant (Freedom Riders, Jesse Owens) serve as consulting producers.