For many, the first time hearing the name Recy Taylor would have been in January 2018 when Oprah Winfrey paid tribute to the extraordinary woman in her Golden Globe speech, and yet Taylor’s sexual assault would prove to be an organisational spark in the Civil Rights Movement decades before the Women’s Movement and the #MeToo resurgence.
On September 3rd 1944, Recy Taylor neé Corbitt was kidnapped at gunpoint after leaving Church in Abbeville, Alabama by seven young white men. They drove her to a nearby wooded area where six of them – aged between 14-18 – took turns in raping and terrorising the 24-year-old sharecropper, wife and mother, before leaving her blindfolded and stranded at the side of the road. Despite three eye witnesses identifying the driver who would name all of his passengers (none of whom were questioned) an all white, all male jury dismissed the case. Enter the NAACP and their chief instigator, Ms. Rosa Parks who was to conduct a thorough investigation, help defend Taylor and seek punishment for her attackers – some eleven years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott – a dangerous business in Jim Crow-era South.
Writer-Director Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story) uses her film – which had premieres at the Venice Biennale and New York Film Festival – to expose the systematic racism that not only fostered the heinous crime but covered it up. She utilises footage from “race films” and their lack of white gaze to tell Recy Taylor’s story. These are intercut with gospel music and Church footage – shot by Zora Neale Hurston whose journalistic prose would prove important during another unconscionable and despicably unjust “rape” case in Scottsboro a decade earlier.
While the obvious tone of this documentary is solemnity, some may find its structure superfluous, however, these snippets of human life, art and joy in the face of such adversity are beautiful in an otherwise infuriating film where (yet again) white privilege not only dehumanised this woman but terrorised her family. The full impact of which is discussed in interviews with Taylor’s brother Robert and sister Alma. Hearing them describe how their father slept in a tree overlooking their home (after Recy and husband Willie’s house had been firebombed) with a shotgun as a means to protect his family is particularly hard to hear, made all the more galling when one considers the justification for lynching was the white man “protecting” his wife and daughters. Benny Corbitt was, of course, not afforded that power.
Recy Taylor was just one in a longer tradition of black women who spoke her truth and sought justice, and an aspect the documentary does particularly well is arguing passionately for their place in history – these women were always there. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Ruby Bridges, the afore-mentioned Winfrey – look at the audiences photographed during Martin Luther King’s numerous rallies, they were there, or look to the backbone of the Black Panther Party, or consider there wouldn’t even be a #MeToo without Tarana Burke.
The Rape of Recy Taylor is urgent and essential viewing. It speaks to the visibility of the African American woman, and the countless women whose voices have failed to be heard. A quietly devastating dedication – get tissues for the last ten minutes – to strength, resilience, resistance and a sustained fight for justice. The name Recy Taylor stands for them all.