“The Rape of Recy Taylor” filmmaker Nancy Buirski tells the largely forgotten story of a survivor whose injustice sparked a movement—and should be taught for generations to come.
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The 1944 gang rape of a 24-year-old Black woman named Recy Taylor at the hands of six white men who were never charged is one of the most brutal injustices you may not have known about until recently, when Oprah Winfrey name-checked the civil-rights icon during her Golden Globes speech. Count her name among those buried in the annals of crimes against Black people gone unpunished, an archive growing denser by the day.
Director Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story, Loving) became obsessed with Taylor’s story after reading Danielle L. McGuire’s powerful 2010 book, 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, an exhaustive documentation of the stories of women who shaped the civil-rights movement. Buirski was surprised she didn’t know Taylor’s story—that of a Black woman in the segregated South who reported her rape, named her attackers, and took them to court, only to see them dismissed without consequence. She was determined to help share it with the world, and indeed historian McGuire was hired as a consultant on the film. In The Rape of Recy Taylor, which is available this week on all digital streaming platforms, the importance of Taylor’s story and bravery is clear. She didn’t just contribute to the civil-rights movement; she started it.
I talked to Buirski about Taylor’s lasting legacy and what we can all learn from it.
This film had its limited theatrical release last year, but many people first heard Recy Taylor’s name when Oprah spoke of her at the Golden Globes. Do you think we weren’t ready to have this conversation before the first silence-breakers talked about Harvey Weinstein and before Tarana Burke’s MeToo hashtag became a movement?
I think this story has been hidden for some time. Because we made the film and did a bit of press, Recy started to become better known. So when she passed away at the end of December, there were a number of obituaries that I don’t think she would have gotten because hers was such a hidden story. I think the obituaries triggered Oprah Winfrey to bring it up, and there has been a gradual recognition of Recy Taylor since last fall. But before any of that, her story really wasn’t known. It’s why I made the movie.
When I first learned about Recy’s story, I was shocked I didn’t know about it, nor did I know about the incredible number of rape and physical assaults of Black women by white men during that era. I knew about the lynchings that took place, chronically, but I did not know that rape was being used as a tool of power in a similar way. I just felt like this was a really overlooked piece of history. It was a story that had to be told.
The idea of a “tool of power” resonates with anyone who understands what’s at play with sexual assault, but women weren’t the only ones victimized by rape during this time.
The power dynamic in rape when we’re talking about Black women and white men, it is as much against the Black men as it is against the women. It’s a method of putting Black men in their place because there was nothing Black men could do about this. They couldn’t protect their women or they would probably be as much at-risk as the women who dared to speak up, which is why so many didn’t. They were at genuine risk of being assaulted again or losing their lives.
Recy’s father wanted to take out a shotgun and confront the six boys who had done this. And he was reminded over and over again that he needed to stay alive to continue to protect his family. We see that it’s not just the ugly entitlement and brutal inhumanity that was part of this gang rape, but it went further than that because it also maintained the white status in society at the time.
In many ways, the #MeToo movement is about unleashing untold stories. Women are finally able to shout their injustices and for the first time, they’re being heard. Recy feels to me like a foremother of this movement. She refused to stay silent about her rape at a time when a Black woman speaking up and out against white men could do a lot more than get you fired. She was putting her life at risk. Where do you think she found her courage?
I think it came partly from her religion—she was very religious and must have gotten strength from that space. I think she got a lot of it from her father and her family because they all supported her. They all believed that what happened to her was a crime and there was never a sense of shame. They knew it was wrong, and they also had a sense that it was a systemic problem, that it didn’t just happen to Recy.
Did you think she was cognizant of the fact that her voice would speak for so many others, and potentially help other women for generations to come?
No. I don’t think she felt like she was an agent for change, or that she was going to try to change this for everybody. She spoke up the very night she was raped. She was probably still in shock. I don’t think she was thinking strategically. I think she was thinking that something happened to her that was a crime and she needed to report it.
Recy’s story is also a story of Rosa Parks, whose early career activism with the NAACP—she was the investigator who thrust Recy’s case into the national spotlight, and led a national campaign against sexual assaults on Black women—is so often overlooked, and certainly not taught in schools. How do you think we move the needle on retelling the whole truth of American history?
It’s true that (during the Civil Rights era), the light was shining on men like Martin Luther King Jr. as the spokespeople for the movement when it was actually the women doing the work. In many ways, that’s still happening. Women are organizing and making a difference—look at how Black women influenced the senatorial election in Alabama. But you’re right, they don’t get enough credit. I honestly don’t know for sure what inspired that impulse to organize and to change (within that community), but we did posit in the film that a lot of it comes from the need to protect their bodies, that they were the ones being molested, they were the ones being assaulted. So they had a very direct reason for needing to make change: to save themselves. I don’t want to suggest that there were no men involved in these movements. The head of the NAACP in Montgomery in those days was a man. But they couldn’t have accomplished what they did without these women.
I think it reminds us how we have to hold our educators accountable for getting the stories straight. We understand why Rosa Parks was positioned the way she was. The optics were much better to have her not be the public leader. You had Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a great spokesman. No one could compare to his statesmanlike ability to deliver a message. Rosa Parks sent a more poignant message perhaps the way she ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. But the truth of her story is that she was an activist working for 10 to 15 years before the bus boycotts. She has a long history of working for change that’s often not explored.
The way that Parks talked labor unions, African-American groups, and women’s organizations to join together on behalf of Taylor to collectively spread the message of injustice and put pressure on the systems that carried it out reminds me what feminist intersectionality is supposed to look like. We’ve had some fractures along the way. What can feminists learn from this history?
I think splintered groups still accomplish quite a bit, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with identifying with a group you feel closest to. But I think when we have a major goal in front of us, then we have to come together and do something about it. When we have a common enemy we accomplish much more. I think the more that the alt-right continues to increase its impact, the more we’re going to find people pulling together and working together because it’s the only way we’re going to accomplish anything major.
When Recy’s case made it to court in 1944, an all-white, all-male jury was tasked with weighing the claims of a Black woman against the defendants. Such impossible frameworks are still at play in the criminal justice system, particularly with Black defendants or law enforcement officers on trial for harming Black people. Are you struck by how painfully relevant this 74-year-old case is today?
Let me just say that I think we have seen all sorts of examples of injustice within the jury system and I know that good people try to weed it out as much as possible, but it’s very very difficult. I think Recy Taylor’s story, and her jury, had a very unique kind of injustice embedded in it. This is a speculation, but we do say in the film these are primarily white men who were trying to decide whether to indict their sons, their nephews, their neighbors, their friends. They are all coming from the same community and feeling very protective of those boys. But I’d like to suggest something else. Because these crimes were so systemic, I would speculate that many of the men on those juries had committed the same crimes. And so it’s very hard to go ahead and indict a kid who did something that not only you (also) did, but that you didn’t even feel was wrong. I think we have a very unique situation in this case where the systemic nature of the crime has to have an impact on the jury. I don’t know if that’s the case in many of these racially charged trials today, but it’s definitely something to think about.
There is a hopeful thread to Recy’s story. Activists were galvanized. Her story wasn’t completely forgotten, as so many are. We’re talking about her today, and hopefully, we’ll keep talking about, and learning from Recy. And that’s in part because of your film. What kind of responsibility do you carry as a filmmaker for changing historical narratives, and do you feel the entertainment industry at large has an obligation to do the same?
I think we have to be as truthful as we can to the extent that we can. Filmmakers take these responsibilities extremely seriously. It’s one thing to make a film, it’s another thing to make one you hope will last and inform a public that knows very little about the subject matter.
I don’t think every filmmaker feels compelled to tell these types of historical stories, but I think more and more of them should. And I think they need to understand that history is not closed; it’s not over, and that these stories really have a timeless quality about them. If we can really see the connections between something that happened in 1944 and what’s going on in 2018, then we’re doing an important service to a community that’s trying to process this information. That was an important goal of mine. I knew instinctively that we were not looking at history, but at a different kind of reality.
What did you learn about Recy that surprised you most?
It’s her courage. It’s her bravery. It’s the strength that she showed speaking up when it was so dangerous for her to do that. And the other thing I learned, which I’m so pleased we were able to get in this movie, was the role that African American women play in general in history, the role that hasn’t been recognized, and one we should celebrate as much as possible.
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