Documentarian Nancy Buirski traces this shameful 1944 incident and the legal fiasco that followed, honoring a woman of color who dared to speak out after being sexually assaulted by a group of white youths.
The plaintive voice of Dinah Washington singing "This Bitter Earth," backed by the mournful strings of Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight," is heard over disturbing images from an early 20th century race movie that show a terrified black woman running for her life. That opening brings a powerful emotional charge that resonates throughout The Rape of Recy Taylor. With lucidity and deep feeling, Nancy Buirski's documentary maps an ugly trail of injustice and then widens its lens to pay tribute to the women of color whose refusal to be silent helped drive the evolution of the Civil Rights movement.
The case that supplies the title and the narrative spine of the movie is one of countless like it in the Jim Crow South. Recy Taylor was a 24-year-old African-American married sharecropper with a baby daughter, living in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted while on her way home from church in 1944 by seven white local youths with a gun. They loaded her into a car, drove her to a secluded place in the woods, ordered her to strip and then six of them took turns raping her. They released her four or five hours later that night, warning her that there would be consequences if she reported the incident.
Those harrowing events are recounted with hurt and indignation that remain raw more than 70 years later by the victim's sister, Alma Daniels, and younger brother, Robert Corbett, who was practically raised by Recy after their mother died young.
Given that Recy recognized at least some of the rapists from around town (the group was aged roughly 14-18), they were easily identified and brought in for questioning by a sheriff with strong ties in the community, including to the youths' parents. While there was no record of the Taylors ever having been in trouble with the police, early reports falsely identified Recy as a prostitute. As a result of the gang rape being reported, the family's home was firebombed and Recy's father slept in a tree out front with a loaded rifle, to guard against further repercussions.
Via impassioned interviews with Yale scholar Crystal Feimster and nonfiction author Danielle L. McGuire, whose book At the Dark End of the Street was the inspiration for the movie, Buirski provides rich context. The legacy of slavery remained so ingrained in the South that many white boys were taught by their fathers and grandfathers to view sex with a black woman as a rite-of-passage, consensual or not. According to the plantation attitude still somewhat prevalent then, black women's bodies did not entirely belong to them. In rural towns especially, they had to be careful to walk on well-lit streets and avoid going out alone at night.
Another trenchant point is the heartbreaking powerlessness of men like Recy's husband and father, prevented from seeking their own justice by the certainty of violent, perhaps fatal, reprisals.
The outcome of the hearing before a jury of white locals will surprise no one, but the film provides fascinating detail about the tenacious battle waged by organizations including the specially formed Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.
One of the galvanizing forces working in her corner was Rosa Parks. And an invaluable element of Buirski's film is the light it sheds on Parks' political work before the event that came to define her, when the weary seamstress in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger. Parks documented her own bitter brush with attempted sexual assault, and from her early days as a secretary, activist and grass-roots organizer with the NAACP, she had served as the organization's official rape investigator, fighting for the rights of black women. Countless others were scared silent after being physically abused by white men.
Coming in the wake of the Charlottesville clash, with Confederate flags and burning torches making a deplorable comeback, Buirski's film packs a wallop of quiet indignation. What distinguishes it from many other documentaries on the segregated South is its attention to the role of the black press in spreading word of crimes against African-American Southerners in the more liberal north. In Taylor's case, a vociferous advocacy campaign on her behalf prompted the Governor of Alabama to conduct a second investigation and hearing, although the results were similarly biased.
Brothers of two of the young men accused continue to speak of the events of that night as just a case of boys getting wild and out of control, as boys are wont to do — even after the State of Alabama decades later issued an official apology to Taylor for the inadequacy of its legal response. That revelation gives the movie a bittersweet sting.
Buirski's previous films include The Loving Story, which was the basis last year for Jeff Nichols' dramatic feature Loving, about the breakthrough interracial marriage of Virginia couple Mildred and Richard Loving. The director finds compelling subject matter here to continue that exploration of race in American history.
She makes resourceful use of music, including spirituals and popular songs, some of them recorded by Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, to build a fluid dramatic thrust into the film's mix of past outrage and present-day perspective. By far the boldest creative stroke, however, is the extensive use of clips from vintage race films — black stories told by black filmmakers for black audiences. Oscar Micheaux is the most prolific director represented here, with films spanning from 1919 through the 1920s and '30s, and titles including Within Our Gates, Birthright and The Symbol of the Unconquered.
These films functioned as a corrective to condescending white depictions at the time of African-American experience. Interwoven by editor Anthony Ripoli with photographic and archival material, they bring the period to life with a ghostly vitality that's highly effective. They also bind this historical investigation to one of America's defining national pastimes — the movies. It's amusing, but also significant, to hear one interviewee recall black kids in the designated "colored section" upstairs at the local movie house, taking their own stand against discrimination by dropping stones or spitting on the heads of the white kids downstairs at matinees. Even childish pranks can become subversive acts in the fight against racial inequality.