“I can’t help but tell the truth – what they done to me,” 97-year-old Recy Taylor says as she sits in her nursing home in Abbeville, Alabama. Taylor is elegant — draped in pearls with her reading glasses perched on her nose. 73 years later, she can recall in vivid detail the night that changed her life forever. Filmmaker Nancy Buirski’s new documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor chronicles the horrendous assault that Taylor endured, which caused outrage across the country before it was swiftly erased from the history books. In 1944, while walking home from Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville with two friends, Taylor was kidnapped at gunpoint by seven white boys and raped for several hours in the woods. Taylor was a 24-year-old sharecropper at the time — a young wife and mother whose life shattered as a result of the brutal assault and the aftermath of it. However, her determination to speak out sparked a new type of resistance.
Rape is an unspeakable crime – it is as revolting as it is unfathomable and yet it remains so prevalent. The world has never been a safe place for women, but for women of color and Black women, in particular, it has been nightmarish. To tell Taylor’s story, the documentary uses footage from “race films” like Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates — home video, commentary from Yale scholar Crystal Feimster, Ph.D archival footage and interviews from Taylor’s siblings – her brother Robert Corbitt and sister, Alma Daniels. Buirski traces the night of the attack, the grand jury hearings that led to no indictments, as well as the NAACP’s involvement. It was Taylor’s willingness to speak out against what happened to her and so many other nameless, faceless women that propelled the Black Press and the nation to rally behind her.
The Rape of Recy Taylor is not an easy film to watch. Along with Taylor’s story – the film also moves through the history of Black women’s rapes by white men beginning with slavery. Utilizing research from scholar Danielle McGuire’s 2011 book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — the film examines the lack of justice and protection around Black women and their bodies. Buirski also hones in on the perception of Black women as a whole – the men who raped Taylor felt entitled to do so, and after they were questioned, they tried to claim that she was a prostitute.
The film moves quickly. The eerie race film footage and music like Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” tie together giving the documentary a tone that is prevalent in horror films. The audience sees the botched investigation into the assault and learns from Taylor’s family how much it affected her father – a man who began sleeping in the tree above their home with a shotgun to protect his family once the assault became public information. The one gripe that I had with the film was that we hear from the rapists’ families. To this day, they act as if the boys involved had simply gone joyriding in a stolen vehicle. Though they were probably given a voice out of a need to present a fair and balanced story, I was only enraged further.
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