In the documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” about a brutal 1944 crime and its aftermath, a surprising name emerges: Rosa Parks.
“The mythology around her was that she was this tired seamstress who just didn’t want to change her seat on the bus,” says the film’s director, Nancy Buirski, referring to the 1955 event that turned Parks into a civil-rights icon. But that doesn’t square with the woman we meet here, 11 years before — when Parks, long an activist, investigated sexual assault for the NAACP. The organization sent her to the small town of Abbeville, Ala., to interview Taylor, a black wife and mother who had been gang-raped by six white men and defied the warnings of her gun-wielding attackers to stay silent.
Taylor reported the crime to the police, and she and her family spoke out about it unapologetically and furiously — even after two all-white grand juries declined to indict her attackers.
When Parks came to town to interview Taylor, the town’s sheriff barged into the victim’s home and ordered Parks to leave. Parks returned weeks later, only to be physically thrown out of the house by the sheriff.
Like her refusal to be moved on the bus, Buirski says, Parks insisted on her right to “bodily space.” Both actions were “about claiming your space in the world,” says the filmmaker, whose 2012 HBO documentary “The Loving Story,” about a mixed-race couple, was the inspiration for last year’s narrative drama “Loving.”
As the new documentary reveals, Parks was nearly raped by an older white man years before. “She was a baby sitter when it happened,” says Buirski. “It took her a few years before she developed this activist mentality and became dedicated to speaking out. She wrote what happened in an essay, and used it to teach activism to others.”
In that essay, Parks describes insisting to her would-be assailant that he doesn’t have the right to touch her, eventually persuading him to leave.
The film makes a clear connection between Parks and Taylor, two very different women who stood up to racial injustice. For Taylor, Buirski says, “Speaking up had nothing to do with activism, it had nothing to do with changing the world. “She just knew it was wrong … She knew enough about the legacy of rape in the Jim Crow South, that women were being attacked, and that it was a crime.”
Given the current outpouring of stories of sexual assault, Buirski says it’s remarkable that Taylor came forward when she did in the deep South, in an era when racism was law and lynching was common.
“Think of Recy Taylor speaking up in 1944, when her life, and her family’s safety, was at risk,” says Buirski, adding that she wasn’t trying to trivialize what women are going through today.
“Still, I do think a lot of black women are being left out of the conversation,” Buirski says. “They have been living with this for such a long time. Black women have always been in more serious danger.”
Nevertheless, a glaring similarity exists between Taylor’s attackers and the men Buirski calls “the Harvey Weinsteins of the world,” who never thought they’d be caught.
“There’s this sense of entitlement these men have,” she says, “whether they’re white supremacists or modern media moguls who felt like they could get away with anything.”
Taylor is 97, and although she suffers from dementia, Buirski says when she was interviewed briefly for the film two and a half years ago, she understood that Buirski was intent on telling her story.
“She knew,” says the director. “And she was very pleased.”