On September 3, 1944, 24-year-old Recy Taylor was walking home from a church revival in rural Alabama. That evening, she later reported, she was kidnapped at gunpoint and raped by six white teenage boys. According to court records, her attackers said they’d kill her if she talked. She talked anyway, which led to a two-day-long trial in October. Taylor’s assailants were never arrested, and the local sheriff didn’t perform a lineup, so Taylor never had the chance to identify her attackers. And because there were never any arrests made, Taylor and her family ended up being the only witnesses at trial. The jury, made up of only white men, dismissed the case. News of the trial exploded in the black newspapers, and it wasn’t long before NAACP found out about it. They dispatched Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks to investigate.
In November 1944, Parks launched a justice campaign called the Committee for Equal Justice for Taylor, and with the help of the black press, chapters grew nationwide. The fervor pressured the governor of Alabama to launch an investigation into the paltry detective work done in the wake of Taylor’s rape. Still, a jury—once again, comprised entirely of white men—failed to indict. As the Committee fizzled out, its members moved on to focus on other acts of sexual violence against black women and segregation in Alabama. By then,
the trial had brought attention to sexual assault, but Taylor’s story has largely been lost in the melange of southern horror stories of the era.
In The Rape of Recy Taylor, director Nancy Buirski gives the case historical perspective over 70 years after the attack. Inspired by Danielle Lynn McGuire’s book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance, Buirski spoke to Taylor’s family, relatives of Taylor’s alleged rapists, and historians to tell an oft-untold story about how black women fought for bodily integrity in the shadow of Jim Crow.
The documentary pairs scenes of Southern Gothic (looming trees, drone shots of evergreen fields and dirt roads) with archival footage, race films, and Taylor family documents to weave a narrative about justice, or lack thereof. While I quibbled with some of Buirski’s choices—for instance, the decision to interview the relatives of Taylor’s accused rapists, who divulged little information and whose apparent skepticism that a rape even took place wasn’t challenged enough—overall the film is required viewing. It’s heartbreaking to hear Taylor’s brother and sister speak about the rape, but there’s a value to the haunted stories of these black elders that feels sacrosanct. And the commentary from McGuire and scholars like Crystal Feimster (associate professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies at Yale) helped underscore the fact that Recy’s story might not have been well known, but it was in no way isolated. Neither were the contributions black women made to Recy’s fight for justice, and the fight for black liberation across the United States. But the activism of everyday black women has often been pushed to the backburner, overshadowed by the contributions of black men. The film was about Recy, but it also acted as an ode to black women whose plights and fights became an afterthought.
Ahead of the film’s release—digitally on March 27 and on Starz in July—I spoke with Buirski over the phone about what she hoped to accomplish, and how she feels as a white woman covering a black woman’s tale. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: How did you get to Recy’s story? Because as a black woman, she’s not someone that I grew up knowing about. I’m sure many other black women did not know about her.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Right, I was surprised to learn that myself. I, certainly as a white woman, had not heard of her. Nor had I been aware of the incredible number of rapes and physical assaults that were taking place against black women by white men in that period. I wasn’t totally surprised when I learned of it, but I didn’t know. The fact that it had not been part of my education... I felt it was a huge oversight. And as I’ve gone out and shown the film and talked about it afterwards, I discovered that most black women didn’t know about it, either. They were aware of the kind of systemic culture of rape that was passed down through slavery. And very often their families—their mothers, their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers—you can correct me if I’m wrong—they seemed to have engaged in this kind of code of silence. They were aware of it, but they didn’t talk about it. So many women were finding out about this for the first time when they saw our film. Many others weren’t! Many did feel they did have some sense of this kind of behavior and ongoing. They didn’t know Recy Taylor’s story, they didn’t know that there was something like this. It was kind of hidden behind closed doors.
I think that for a lot of black American women, there is this understanding like, yes, I probably have a great-great-great-grandfather who is white and they were not involved consensually. You have this knowledge, but you don’t really know many stories. What I think is interesting in this documentary is that a lot of the narrative about the Civil Rights movement has been male-focused.
Uh huh, yes.
Did you see this as an opportunity for black women to feel empowered by this film?
Totally, yeah. I think this film... Look, scholars and historians know the role that black women played throughout the Civil Rights movement and prior to it. I mean, for them it’s not a surprise. But unfortunately, their work doesn’t necessarily get disseminated, and it has not become part of the popular culture in the way a film can be. So I think that this film has the opportunity to correct this impression that women were just kind of sitting back and letting men do the job. Just the opposite. The women, they were the boots on the ground. They were out there organizing, and creating a movement. I mean, it’s the women who created the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor. Not that there weren’t men involved, too—there certainly were. But if you look at the photographs in the film, it’s where you see large groups of people involved in these movements, and they were mostly women. And Crystal Feimster says it very eloquently in the film that these were the women who were out there doing the work. Though Martin Luther King was obviously a great spokesperson and had a most eloquent way of delivering the message—and I don’t think any women ever begrudged the role he played—there’s no question that without the women, the change would not have happened.
A moment in the film that really struck me was when Danielle McGuire said the Montgomery Bus Boycott wasn’t just about being able to sit where you want on the bus, but it was also a fight for “bodily integrity.”
Exactly. This is her thesis that we put on screen. She really does connect the fight for bodily integrity to these movements and I think says very eloquently in the film that unless you can walk down the street and not be molested, or not be slapped, then being able to sit in a theater, having equal representation, being able to vote—that’s never going to be as important if you feel like you’re going to be raped when you walk out of your house. So that, I think, is a great deal of what motivated these women to come together and fight so hard for justice. I shouldn’t say for justice, I should say equality. Yes, they fought for justice; they were fighting for Recy Taylor’s justice and other women like Recy Taylor. But at the end of the day they’re really fighting for the right to walk through the world unmolested.
Just going off of the bodily integrity, I think that one of the most haunting moments of this documentary was when Recy’s sister [Alma Daniels] described her rapists as not just raping her, but they “played in her body.” That was very brutal.
That’s exactly what she said. And you know, Alma Daniels is, you know...each member of the family has their own knowledge. [What was so wonderful about being able to them narrate the story] Robert Corbitt [Taylor’s brother] is a very simple man, and yet he made it his life’s mission, his life’s work to expose what happened to Recy Taylor. Even though it’s impossible to get real justice for her, to try to get some justice in the court of public opinion. Alma Daniels was much more feisty and actually quite bitter about a lot of things that happened to her and her family. So she doesn’t pull any punches. We don’t know exactly what happened to Recy Taylor physically, but I suspect that Alma is right. If you’re being gang-raped over a four-hour period, chances are you can receive quite a bit of damage. They said she couldn’t have children after that. But we can only speculate.
You touched on something else I wanted to mention: the way you stylize the story. Recy was still alive when you were doing the initial filming. She just recently passed. But we didn’t really hear much from her in the documentary itself. Was that deliberate?
It was probably by necessity, and then ultimately became a creative choice. But she was ailing. We only did the interview two years ago, and she was already 96 years old by that point, and she wasn’t doing very well. So it was very hard to get her to talk on camera [very long]. You heard everything we had; you heard her at the beginning of the film, and then you hear her talk again somewhere in the middle of the film. But that was the extent of her ability to talk to us, so we were limited. If we had put her in the film earlier, you would have expected to see her many more times in the film. We weren’t able to do that. But as the film developed, we realized there was something truly triumphant about Recy Taylor still being alive. Frankly, even if she’s not physically alive, her story, her legacy is very much alive. Back to the rapists: We don’t know what exactly happened to all of them, but they’re gone, for sure. So there was a sense of triumph that she was still here. Then it just became a cool opportunity to express that by showing her at the end of the movie.
That reveal was really striking because for most of the movie she’s almost, like, ethereal. You kind of just hear, get bits and pieces.
And again, I didn’t start off that way, and it certainly became more and more evident that that’s what we should do. And I’m glad it worked out that way.
I want to ask you about your use of old footage like race films to tell this story instead of reenactments. Why that choice?
I purposely didn’t want to reenact it. I felt that would be insulting, to try to portray what happened to her, and use actors, things like that. I just didn’t want to do that. And when I thought about using the race films, I felt that that was a much better way of expressing what happened because I thought the use of the race films communicated in a really powerful way that this happened to more people than Recy Taylor. That each one of those characters symbolize—cause their fiction, created by black filmmakers to express things that they care about—so they all represent women like Recy Taylor. If it hadn’t happened to more women than Recy Taylor, they would have never developed those scenes in their films. They developed those scenes because that kind of behavior was going on chronically.
It was based on their reality. And what they’ve witnessed.
That’s correct, right. So they’re reflecting their reality in the fictional stories their putting on the screen. And I [could take] their expression of reality and put it on the screen, if that makes any sense?
And you also incorporated recent photos of black women resisting in protest, as well as a photo of Sandra Bland.
I didn’t want to be too heavy handed with that but, I did really want to mention that almost unconsciously. They’re very brief; they’re within motifs and montage of other older images. But I just wanted to communicate how connected this all is.
Right, this isn’t gone.
Yeah, it’s ongoing. It’s timeless. This isn’t history. History implies some closure. And I feel so strongly that that’s not what this story is, there isn’t real closure to it. We’re living with it every day.
So, you’re a white woman—
You did this story about the subject of a black woman’s rape. Have you gotten pushback for that? And do you think any of it is warranted?
I’ve had this question, but I haven’t actually had pushback. People have said to me, “Why would you do this?” I also did The Loving Story [a documentary about Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who fought the state of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in the 1950s and 1960s] a number of years ago, and so I clearly have been attracted to telling stories about race in our country. And that comes from a very deep feeling that I have that race is the American story, and the American tragedy. And because white people are complicit in these tragic events, that we too have a responsibility to tell these stories.
That said, I could not make this film like a black woman could make it. I’m not in a black woman’s skin. There’s so many things that black women experience and live through, and their mothers and grandmothers live through, that white women haven’t. It’s a lineage of experience that white woman just don’t have and can’t tap into. However, I’d like to think that there’s a level of empathy that I have for other people’s experience, and I hope that I’ve brought that to the makings of this movie. I hope that black women will now move forward and tell this story in whatever way they want to tell it. I think that we all bring a special dimension or perspective to these stories, and I think that they can all contribute to the discussion. But I also, you know, believe strongly that the story should also be told by black women.
In other words, you feel like you’re doing what you can in a position of systematic privilege?
Yeah, and also I do believe that I have a deep empathy for this kind of story. I don’t think I would have made The Loving Story without that. And so I hope that that empathy helps me connect to much of the feeling in the story and that the feeling gets to the screen.
A lot of people found out who Recy was through Oprah name-dropping her in her Golden Globes speech.
As someone who has literally spent time doing a documentary about this woman, what was it like to hear Oprah bring her into the spotlight?
Oh my God. I was not prepared for it. You know, I was watching the Golden Globes like so many others. However, when she said “there’s something you should know,” there was that moment, that split second before she said Recy’s name, that I said, “She’s gonna say Recy Taylor.” I still get a chill when I think about it—and to hear her actually say it? I was crying.
I feel like it was almost inevitable. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time with the story, and with Recy Taylor and her family, that they were so much a part of my own personal story, that I was kind of living and breathing their story. So it felt very current and urgent to me. But then when the film came out, we got wonderful recognition for it, we got wonderful reviews, and it had just been released theatrically in New York. We got very good reviews in the New York Times and that kind of thing travels. And then she passed away. The Golden Globes were January 8. The obituary, obviously, did a lot to bring her out into the public forum, and so I just felt like this was building to a point where, if she’s going to refer to someone who isn’t known but should be known—
It would be Recy.
What do you want people to take away from this movie? I mean, you tell this story, a classic American tragedy, and you give it to these viewers. What do you want them to do with this information? Do you want them to act? What’s your goal with this film?
Wow, I mean... I think that in order for society to change, and for people to connect with each other’s stories, first they have to hear them. And we are, you know, a species of storytellers. That’s what we’ve been doing since caveman wrote marks on the cave. So I was delighted to be trusted with this story, and I hope that [viewers] now repeat this story, and they tell this story. And they feel a connection to Recy Taylor and her family, and to other women who were treated this way. That they recognize them, that they see them. You know, so many of these women were silenced during that time. Or, as Crystal Feimster said at the end of the film so beautiful is, “these white boys didn’t see her.” So I’m hoping that this will allow people to see her, and if we see people and we recognize their humanity, it connects us all.