The documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor, may tell a tragically common story, but its subjects are anything but resigned. If anything, the film ties the crime at its center into a far bigger picture of resistance during the Jim Crow era, which was already simmering long before it was forced to give way to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s one of those stories that goes largely untold, mostly because not only were black women the victims, but they were also fighting for justice, rather than taking the traditional route of remaining silent or invisible while a (white) man fought for them.
In Alabama in 1944, Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old wife and mother, was walking home from church when a group of young white men abducted and raped her. Afterwards, Taylor courageously refused to be silent and chose to not only identify who her rapists were, but press charges against her attackers. And the woman who investigated her case and assisted her in her efforts was none other than the legendary Rosa Parks, who would later become an icon after she refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus.
Family members discuss the night Taylor was brutalized and the aftermath, some of which was tragically predictable. Her rapists tried to say she was a prostitute who willingly slept with them. The white sheriff was reluctant to see justice done and seemed far more interested in burying the incident, an agenda the system seemed to share, from the night of the incident to the mostly farcical legal proceedings that came after. Taylor’s home was firebombed, she and her family moved back in with her father, who sat outside the home many nights with a shotgun. And he was clearly willing to use it if anyone came seeking to harm his family.
The documentary also shows clips from “race movies,” mostly unseen by whites, which were made by black filmmakers for black audiences, and addressed many of these problems long before they were acknowledged by the mainstream media and culture. There are also pictures of the family, who firmly stood by Taylor, and the usual academics and historians who speak of just how black women were seen and used by white men. However, some of them are anything but academic when they discuss the subject matter. One of the most powerful is Crystal Feimster, a black female Yale professor, whose scholarly knowledge of the various social forces that allow, and sometimes condone, such horrific brutality, still isn’t enough to fully understand just how Recy Taylor and women like her could actually be treated this way.
Then there are the deeply unsettling, sometimes outright disturbing statements from relatives of the attackers, who all share a refusal to face the truth not only about what happened, but about the reality of life for many black people even today. Larry Smith, a local Alabama historian, remarked, “Probably some slave owners felt that they could have their will with a female slave, since they owned the slave. And I’m sure in some instances that was a consensual type of an affair. But in those days, an old saying used to be in these parts, that every white man had another woman at every crossroads. White and black.”
Needless to say, every black person on-screen had very different stories and views of such “affairs.” It’s a lesson we seem to need to learn again and again, that the past is never past. Many people back then probably would’ve remarked that the legacy of slavery was over and done with, but it’s pretty damn hard not to see the connection between the sheriff refusing to hold Recy’s rapists accountable and the fact that he was descended from slaveowners. Not only that, but his ancestors actually “owned” Taylor’s, which was why both families actually shared the same surname.
But the documentary is frustratingly baffling near the end, when it is revealed that Recy Taylor has outlived everyone who tried to break her, and is still alive today. It feels like a triumph, especially since once it became clear that her case would not be pursued, the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement in general mostly seemed to forget about Taylor, who went on to have a very difficult life. While her voice is heard, she does not actually speak to the camera, and while the reason for this decision is understandable, it is never explained.
It’s a real shame, because the rest of the film is a moving tribute to the mostly unseen women who were nevertheless the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. It is their resilience that The Rape of Recy Taylor celebrates most, all the more so because it seemed heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. In the end, the documentary suggests that they endured and persisted for no other reason than that they had to.
The Rape of Recy Taylor is a profoundly moving documentary on an overlooked part of civil rights history.
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