Though the titular crime happened in 1944, there’s a sense of urgency to Nancy Buirski‘s “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” Like last year’s “13th” and “I Am Not Your Negro,” this documentary centers on the past, but its pertinence to today’s culture is striking – and utterly devastating. The tragedy of what happened to Taylor can cause the kind of tears that leave your face swollen and sore, but it’s all the more painful given the current events in America.
In Abbeville, Alabama, a car full of white men grabbed Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old woman and mother, while on her walk home from church. She emerged hours later from the woods, found by her family and the police, after six young men raped her. Unsurprisingly for the Jim Crow South, her ordeal wasn’t over as she was subjected to harassment and attacks on her character. The event became a rallying point for activists in the ‘40s, despite attempts by the local authorities to ignore the crime.
Buirski relates Taylor’s story using a variety of techniques. Taylor’s voice appears as a voiceover, offering what happened in her own words. Her brother and sister add additional insight into from their perspective, and we also hear from the families of the perpetrators, a local historian and other experts. Drone photography highlights the peaceful beauty of the rural area, and it’s a sharp contrast to the violence we know occurred there. Archival footage and photos from the period illustrate what we’re hearing about, as gospel music scores the pain we’re watching. A simpler approach could have better underscored the film’s central focus, but it doesn’t ultimately blunt the effectiveness of what we’re seeing.
Beyond Taylor’s narration, what works best are the clips from “race films,” early cinema made by black filmmakers for black audiences. These share rare depictions of white men’s rape of black women on screen, and the images are starkly beautiful as well as arresting.
What makes “The Rape of Recy Taylor” so resonant is context. Buirski grounds Taylor’s experience in its time, sharing how it fits within the larger narrative of America’s treatment of black people and the specific connection to well-known figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. This wasn’t an isolated incident in its time or region, and its reach went far beyond Abbeville and Alabama. It also affected the civil rights movement for decades to come.
However, the context within today’s conversation about race, gender and sexual assault matters, too. There’s been undeniable progress since 1944, but black bodies, women’s bodies and particularly the intersection of the two – black women’s bodies — are still undervalued and under assault. One could think that these crimes are in our past, but the documentary reminds us of its current relevance with a photos of recent events.
Despite that larger context, “The Rape of Recy Taylor” still gives a specific black woman and her experience a voice, which remains rarer than it should be. The film doesn’t simply Taylor as a victim; we hear her own testimony about that night and what happened before and after. And as awful as the events of 1944 were for her, there’s ultimately hope in her story in how it fueled a movement and continues to inspire and push people today.