In recent years, we’ve seen the unearthing of necessary narratives centered around black people in America. From Hidden Figures honoring the black female mathematicians who were an integral part of the country’s Space Race against Russia to I Am Not Your Negro highlighting James Baldwin‘s contributions to black literature and discourse, film is having something of a renaissance in regards to diversifying the storytelling of black America’s history.
The Rape of Recy Taylor, a documentary centered around the rape of Abbeville, Alabama’s Recy Taylor in 1944, is a testament to this. Directed by Nancy Buirski (Loving, By Sidney Lumet), the film uses Taylor’s assault to offer a commentary on slavery’s everlasting effects on black and white people in America, as well as how such incidents were a catalyst for significant protests during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The film’s story is primarily told through Taylor’s siblings, Robert Corbitt and Alma Daniels, as they recount the night their sister was raped by six men as she walked home from church service. Taylor makes an appearance in the movie only through archived recordings of her discussing the attack, But for the most part she’s omitted from the film, Buirski relying on Corbitt, Daniels, and Danielle L. McGuire (author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power), as well as race films from pioneering black director Oscar Micheaux, to tell Taylor’s story.
As Taylor fights for justice against the men who wronged her, the movie also introduces viewers to a pre-Montgomery bus boycott Rosa Parks, who at this point in her life serves as an investigator for the NAACP. Parks takes a personal interest in the case, using the black press to circulate Taylor’s story across the country.
But as interesting as the subject matter is that Buirski is dealing with, there are times where the film lacks in ways that could’ve made it more resonant and stronger. The poignant direction Buirski uses for the movie is effective but simple, lacking a nuance that fails to answer one important question: has the city of Abbeville truly reconciled with such a brutal and violent moment tied to its history?
The answer is an implied no, with both Corbitt and Daniels seeming to want more for their sister, but having to be satisfied with the fact she outlived them all (she died in December of last year). There’s also an exchange between Buirski and Larry Smith who, although claiming to be a local historian in Alabama, can’t bring himself to talk about Taylor’s assault. (He also characterizes certain relations between white men and their slaves as “consensual.”)
This is where Recy Taylor fails to truly provide the commentary it strives for. Almost 74 years later and there’s still a tension surrounding this moment. Buirski relies so much on the poignancy of the topic, overusing ambiguous shots of forests and dark roads as well as a beautifully somber rendition of “This Bitter Earth” by Dinah Washington, that she never directly confronts the discomfort that still seems to plague this city. There are no interviews with Abbeville’s black community; there’s no insight on if Buirski faced hostility from the city for trying to tell Taylor’s story.
Ultimately, there’s more of an interpretive and artistic handling of the subject matter instead of a journalistic one, which dilutes Recy Taylor of its impact. However, Crystal Feimster, an associate professor at Yale who is featured prominently throughout the film, is a redeeming contribution. Feimster is arguably the only nuanced component of the movie that really pushes the narrative forward and offers the confrontation that it lacks. There’s one moment where Feimster, visibly distraught, speaks to how Taylor’s attackers failed to see her as human, continuing to rape her even when she told them she had a family and child to return home to. Feimster successfully provides the context necessary to show how Taylor’s story is indicative of a problem that still persists today.
In the age of #MeToo, The Rape of Recy Taylor is timely. When watching this film it’s hard not to think of the countless women, especially black women, who’ve been caused pain and trauma by men abusing their power, and whose stories have still yet to be told. It’s also hard not to think about the black women who’ve been and continue to be pioneers in uprisings that disregard them, especially when those uprisings become occupied by white women.
Taylor is an unsung hero, a woman whose story was forgotten and lost in the fight for civil rights in America. But at the very least her story now lives on in Recy Taylor.