A young black woman in a long white dress runs along a road and through fields at dusk, repeatedly looking behind her.
The footage is from a race film, movies made from about 1915 onwards, by black directors about black experiences, using mostly black casts. They enabled black stories to be told without the “white gaze”.
Nancy Buirski’s documentary about Recy Taylor, a young black woman who was kidnapped and raped by a group of white youths in Alabama in 1944, cleverly interweaves footage from several of these race films, along with home movies and photographs, to tell the story of her fight for justice.
And vitally it also places that fight, and the attack on Recy Taylor, within a wider context about black women and their lack of bodily autonomy, and the civil rights movement.
Recy Taylor was a 24 year old married woman with a 9 month old baby. Her sister Alma points out that she was more religious than her siblings: “Recy just loved to go to church”, and was determined to attend that Sunday evening. Meanwhile the seven youths were circling. Walking home after the service with a female friend and her friend’s son, Recy was bundled at gunpoint into the boys’ car alone and taken to the woods where she was raped by six of them.
After an attack lasting several hours (and which was so brutal she was unable to have more children) Recy was dumped back in Abbeville, where she lived.
Yale scholar Crystal Feimster points out that black men didn’t have the mechanisms available to them to protect their wives and daughters, as reprisals would be so severe, though white men did. Recy’s home was soon firebombed and she was labelled a prostitute – her father slept in a tree outside the house with a shotgun. Of Recy’s two siblings featured in the film, Alma seems frustrated at her own belief that the boys would be indicted that first time in October 1944: “I felt sure they would’ve found them guilty of it but I should’ve known better”. Her brother Robert, who Recy practically brought up (he was a baby when their mother died) is less surprised: “they knew nothing was going to happen to them.”
Failed by the justice system, Recy was helped by Rosa Parks, at that time rape investigator for the NAACP. A committee was set up specifically to get justice for Recy, and a huge campaign was started, encouraging people across the country to sign petitions and send postcards demanding the Alabama governor investigate.
Rosa Parks had herself been a victim of attempted rape (something she didn’t speak of at the time but wrote about later). As Feimster says: “It’s an unspeakable crime and people use that language to talk about sexual assault because they don’t want people to speak about it.”
The film also puts the Montgomery bus boycott into context as the culmination of events (it took place over a decade after the attack on Recy) because of the refusal of white society to see black women’s bodies as their own, or allow them to physically occupy spaces.
Things have moved on though not nearly as much as we’d like, as the need for a Women’s March this year highlighted. The now elderly relatives of two of the rapists either explain away the rapes as boys with too much time on their hands, or offer what appears to be some kind of penance by way of the attackers’ later military service. A local white amateur historian still talks about the “alleged rape”.
It is refreshing though that for most of the film the young men are continually referred to as rapists, not attackers or any other euphemisms which ignore that fact that this was a vicious sexual assault. The words of some of the rapists are spoken: Dillard York, 17, tries to claim “she undressed willingly and without protest” and that they gave her money; but Willie Joe Culpepper, only 15, refutes this: she was crying and wanted to go home.
Feimster does an incredible job putting Recy’s story into both a historical and black feminist context – in terms of the civil rights movement and how black women were denied agency over their own bodies, and explaining how the two are linked. As a scholar and also as a black woman, she gives Recy her space, and at the end there’s still room for emotion as she wonders how the men who raped Recy could so easily have ignored her humanity and abandoned their own: “they couldn’t see her”.
Buirski is white (and has written about why she has made a film about black women’s experience). While I do think it’s preferable to have black women taking the lead telling stories about black women, here most of the people actually telling Recy’s story on screen are black, including her family, activists and scholars.
And using her story to help us focus on the wider issue about the abuse of black women’s bodies and their fight back over decades has resulted in a film that is by turns rage-inducing, heartbreakingly moving, absorbing and inspiring.
This film is dedicated to all the women who couldn’t and still can’t speak out. Recy Taylor and her family did, both for Recy and ultimately for all the women who couldn’t. Recy promised the men who raped her that she would tell no one if they let her live but once she got home she told everyone. And Robert relates how later the deputy sheriff “was always saying… don’t talk to anybody about it, and everytime he say that, we talk as much as we can!”
Recy Taylor is well into her 90s now. Immaculate in her smart outfit, with neat hair and glamorous nails, she’s still refusing to be silent.