Film Review: The Rape of Recy Taylor

Nancy Buirski’s excellent and timely documentary presents the legacy of one courageous black woman.
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Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor presents an entirely new perspective on the forces at work in the Jim Crow South—and the Civil Rights Movement it inspired. The feature-length documentary is about an African-American woman who was gang-raped by six white boys in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. Taylor was a 24-year-old wife and mother at the time, and was afterward never able to conceive another child. The rape of black women by white men was not uncommon, but Recy Taylor took the unusual step of reporting her rape. That garnered the attention of the NAACP, which sent its investigator, Rosa Parks, to speak with Taylor. A committee was formed to bring attention to the case that was widely reported in the black press.

Taylor’s story unfolds through interviews with family members who recall the rape, and two scholars. One of them, author Danielle L. McGuire, wrote the book At the Dark End of the Street (2010), upon which the documentary is based. Adding weight and visible proof to the disturbing testimony are clips from “race films” that Buirski discovered while researching her subject. Made in the first half of the 20th century outside the Hollywood system, and primarily for African-American audiences, these movies featured all-black casts and sometimes chronicled crimes committed by white Americans against blacks. The Rape of Recy Taylor opens with a clip from a black-and-white race film that depicts a black woman running from an unseen stalker. Negro spirituals, folk songs and music from the Civil Rights Movement are used effectively by Buirski (The Loving Story, 2012), although other orchestral music on the soundtrack tells viewers how to feel and detracts from an otherwise excellent documentary.

Some of the film’s most surprising moments belong to Rosa Parks, best known as the seamstress who was arrested in 1956 after she refused to relinquish her seat to a white person on an Alabama bus. In archival footage, Parks recounts how she became secretary of the NAACP's Montgomery chapter: Apparently, she was the sole woman at the first meeting, and she took notes. From Alma Daniels, Taylor's sister, the audience learns of the Alabama-born activist's courage as an investigator. Parks visited Taylor twice, and on both occasions was interrupted by Abbeville's sheriff when he entered the family's home uninvited. The second time, Sheriff Corbitt forcibly removed Parks and threw her to the ground. As one of the scholars explains, he knew that Parks' presence would bring national attention to Abbeville and to Taylor's case.

Esther Cooper Jackson, a journalist who met with Taylor, testifies to the media coverage in such newspapers as New York’s New Amsterdam News and The Chicago Defender that shamed Alabama's governor into bringing charges against Taylor’s attackers. McGuire and Dr. Crystal Feimster of Yale University describe the victim’s circumstances before and after her rape, placing her experience against that of other black women from the slavery era to the height of the Civil Rights movement. The two scholars provide an unusual feminist perspective, especially when discussing the effect of rape and other violent crimes on black families, noting the demoralization of male relatives who were unable to protect their wives, daughters and sisters.

Had Recy Taylor's father taken revenge for his daughter's rape, he would have risked his life and that of his two other children. The Rape of Recy Taylor leaves the audience with the horror of those five hours that Taylor endured with six white boys, aged 14 to 17, but also with the grief of her father, so apparent in family photographs. Taylor's younger siblings, Daniels and Robert Corbitt, recall that for the rest of their lives they never saw their father without his double-barreled shotgun. One photograph shows Mr. Corbitt with the shotgun on his lap. The family’s surname is the same as that of Abbeville’s sheriff to whom Taylor had to report her rape. Robert explains that this is no accident. Their ancestors were the Corbitt family’s slaves.

Given the many women who have recently attested to being victims of sexual violence, Buirski’s documentary could not be timelier. And, if The Rape of Recy Taylor does not also immediately recall an African-American attorney who was bullied by six white men in 1991, viewers need only visit YouTube. Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas should have prevented his confirmation. After Hill’s appearance, when Thomas was recalled, Judiciary Committee chair Senator Joe Biden’s first remark comforted the judge. The backlash against that Senate panel, from prominent African-American and white women, sparked a national conversation that led to a better understanding of the effects of sexual violence. What Buirski calls for in The Rape of Recy Taylor is a rewrite of the history of the United States through that lens—and the eyes of African-American women.

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